3, 2, 1 or Yet Another Productivity Tool

This is not a new idea at all… Ironically, you will find this in so many articles and books but many of us still seam to have difficulties in applying these concepts in practice. Leo Babauta was one of the authors that have tried to take great productivity ideas like the ones described David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” and worked on simplifying these heavy / complex frameworks and defining more practical and easy-to-adopt strategies. But can this be further simplified?

Recently I have completed this “Learning how to learn” course on Coursera which I do recommend for the really interesting and practical techniques presented (some of them being summarized in my previous article). One interesting idea was to stop focusing on the product, on the end-goal and instead focus on the process, on building the right / sustainable routine. The reason behind this technique is that, most of the time, the end-goal is so far away or so complex that it may seem discouraging… This is the perfect opportunity for procrastination to kick in and to ruin all your plans.

You plan to lose 10 kg in the next 2 months? It’s sooooo hard… You plan to learn for that difficult exam or to get that monstrous certification? It’s soooo much work in front of me… If you look at the problem this way, it’s discouraging. And if you felt this way you need toy understand that it’s perfectly normal – most of us would feel the same…

Another way of looking at this challenges is to setup a routine that would take you to that goal with a pace you feel comfortable with. You will find out that replacing the above mentioned goals with “I’m gonna do 30min exercise every day and eat healthy” or “I will spend 2 hours each day studying” routines will transform the so-hard-to-achieve goals into something more easier to accept and with similar results.

So, now we know the theory… How do we turn this into practice? First, here is more theory. Here are some things you need to accept as absolute truth:

  • you cannot focus on something that really requires your attention / creativity more than 2 hours and still be productive
  • your brain cannot multi-task
  • not all your work is equally important and urgent

Now we are ready to define a simple strategy to put all this in practice – I call it “3, 2, 1” or, in more words, “3 tasks of 2 hours per 1 day”.

  • Step 1: make sure you properly label in 2 buckets: ToDo (work that is important for you and MUST be done at some point) and SomedayMaybe (things that are not that important but you want to process it whenever you have some spare time – e.g. read articles, see presentations, etc)
  • Step 2: for each day define (reserve) up to 3 slots of work of up to 2 hours each. It would be great if you could do this at the end of a day to plan for the next day (do not recommend to plan for more than 1 day ahead giving how much assumptions change from one day to another). Depending on your day (how fragmented / busy it is) you will find room in your calendar for 3 slots or less – that’s fine. Just make sure that:
    • you have at least one slot of work defined (otherwise you will simply not advance with your work)
    • one work slots should not be bigger than 2 hours (otherwise your productivity will simply drop)
    • do not plan for more that 3 work slots per day (even if your think can schedule more work)
  • Step 3: Each day, make sure you use the reserved work slots to work on the topics you planned for. The goal is not necessarily to finish something during that slot but merely to advance toward finishing a work that needs to be done. Remember: we are focusing on the process, not the goal. We are implementing a working routine instead of trying to define slices of work that may be finished in a work slot.
  • Step 4: when you finish going through the planned work slots and you find out that you have more available time in that day, you have several alternatives:
    • you may plan for another work slot for that day – NOT recommended
    • you may take topics from the SomedayMaybe list (this is a great opportunity to consume this list) – recommended
    • you may relax or rest or reward yourself for staying true to this routine – HIGHLY recommended

This process allows you to achieve several things:

  • first accept that you do not have the entire day available for doing work that matters to you but allows you to best take advantage of your whatever available time by splitting it into 2 hours chunks where you can keep your productivity levels high
  • then turns your shift from focusing on the end-goals to implementing a routine where you make sure that every day you have time reserved for advancing toward the end-goal. More over, this routine is a sustainable one: no more than 3 slots of up to 2 hours each per 1 day. Spending more effort on focused-work while claiming to be productive is doubtful
  • gives you the opportunity to be flexible depending on how each day looks like (how many meetings / interrupts you may have) and also gives you the opportunity to have time for rest, relaxation or consume the SomedayMaybe list if you feel like


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Learning how to learn

I’ve just finished this “Learning how to learn” (https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/home/welcome) course on Coursera which is full of interesting, easy to use and practical ideas for improving your memory and ability to learn new things. Definitely a course that I highly recommend.

Here are some concepts I connected instantly with, not because they were necessarily new for me but mostly because I have first discovered them myself and used them a lot without knowing that these were, in fact, well known learning techniques.

Use metaphors and analogy to help simplify matters
Using metaphors or analogy to simplify a hard / complex topic is a really powerful way of learning, of remembering easily that complex topic later on.

My favorite example here is bloom filters. These are basic algorithms that allow someone to get an answer to a question like “Giving a set of numbers, is the number X part of this set?” and you get the answer to this question very very fast. The problem with this algorithm is that if the answer is NO than it’s 100% accurate while if the answer is YES the accuracy is not 100%.

How can you remember this with a simple metaphor? Have you ever seen those cartoons where Bugs Bunny is being chased by Daffy Duck who is being chased by Yosemite Sam who is being chased by a dog and so on? And at some point they where all going through a mountain of snow, each of them leaving their shape in that snow-wall. A bloom filter is exactly that: once Bugs Bunny went through that snow-wall once, if it will try to go again, the hole that was already done in the snow-wall will fit it (Bugs already went through it once). If a huge elephant will try to go through the snow-wall hole, it will not be able to do it, thus we can conclude that the elephant was not in the original set that created the show-wall hole. HOWEVER, is a small mouse will try to go through, it will be able, because it’s smaller than all the ones that have modeled the snow-wall hole. That’s why the YES answer is not 100% reliable. Got it?

Another example is the excellent picture that explains the difference between precision and recall: a couple of topics I’ve had some difficulties to remember until this picture came in: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precision_and_recall

Difference between focused and diffuse thinking
There are two modes of thinking we should be aware of:
– focused: keeps your thoughts concentrated on solving problems you are somewhat familiar with like, for example, solving an arithmetical problem or finding a rime for a word. You access this mode simply by clearing all distractions around you and focusing on the problem you need to solve.
– diffuse: allow for more broad ranging way of thinking that will help you understand a new / hard topic you want to learn. You access this mode simply by doing those natural things that let you brain slowly drift away from the focus mode: get a walk or drift off to sleep.

Knowing when to use the diffuse mode and not rely solely (and for an extended amount of time) on the focused mode is really important for learning new / hard things. Start by focusing directly on the topic you want to learn and then look for ways to get into diffuse mode – you will find that once your brain will start drifting away from the focused mode it will start automatically work in the background to make connections between the new things we are trying to learn and the concepts we’ve already mastered: these are the new neural structures that allow us to learn something new.

Example: I remember in high school that I was required to learn a new poem or parts of novels every week. A technique I’ve learned during those days was to force myself to learn the poem in the evening just before going to sleep. The goal was to be able to recite it by heart at least once, even if I was doing a lot of mistakes (now I know that this was going to focused mode). Then, I went to sleep. Everytime (really) next morning I found out that I was able to recite the poem much much better, with less mistakes (this was the diffuse mode in action).

Tackling procrastination
Focus on the process rather than the product (or the end goal). The reason is simple: if you focus on the end-goal and that goal is so far away or seems so impossible to reach, then, naturally, procrastination will kick in and you will be so tempted to give up. Examples like loosing weight or learning for that big exam may be so familiar to you.

However, if you focus on implementing a process that will get you to the desired goal, you will instantly see results. What does it mean?
Instead of aiming to lose 10 kg in the next 2 months (focus on product), aim to go to the gym 30 min every day and eat healthier (focus on process). Focus on this and weight yourself in 2 months – you’ll be pleasantly surprised (even if you’ll find out that you’ve only lost 7 kg).
Instead of aiming to learn for that incredibly difficult and horrifying exam (focus on product), aim to study 2 hours each day (focus on process). You will be really surprised how much of the exam material will be processed in only 2 weeks, for example.

Also make sure that you “eat your frogs first” – start with tacking the most difficult topics first. Completing them will give you the energy to overcome whatever comes next.

Oh… I almost forgot! A very important technique that will help avoiding procrastination is making sure you reward yourself upon completing those small time-boxes of learning efforts. But, and this is important, make sure hat you delay your reward until after the time-box for learning has expired!!!

My favorite saying that perfectly describes this technique is: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Learning and “spaced-out” repetition
The goal of this technique is to get things out from the working memory (a limited space that can hold very little information for a small amount of time) into the long term memory (this is where the information is being safely stored for a long time).
To achieve this, learning new stuff, understanding it and the moving to the next interesting thing will often not do. Instead, any new topic we’ve just learned needs to be repeated for several times before moving on. But repeating it for a few times within the same hour is not efficient either. A much more efficient technique is when the repetition interval is gradually “spaced-out”: first repetition happens after 1 day, the next one after another 2 days, third one after a week.
Testing yourself whenever you have a chance to check that the new information was indeed safely stored into the long-term memory is an efficient learning technique too.

AND MOST IMPORTANTLY: Sleep and exercise
Sleep helps washing away toxins that develop during our day’s activities. Thus make sure you always get enough sleep and, more important, do not plan to sacrifice the night before an important exam by replacing the sleep with “working” – this will rarely give you any results.
Exercise (cardio for example) is so important for improving both our memory and ability to learn as exercise helps increasing the numbers of new neurons that are being born and survive in the hippocampus (an important part of your brain for memory and learning functions).

Besides the advantages mentioned above, both sleep and exercise are also opportunities for you to use to kick the diffuse way of thinking whenever you feel you need it.

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My ideal manager

PEOPLE QUIT THEIR BOSS, NOT THEIR JOB – this was a really interesting article that made me think a bit on how an ideal manager should look like giving that I have been working with so many managers during my 15 years of “corporate experience” and (most importantly) I am doing this team-manager job for the last 5 years. Here is my view on this role simplified to only 3 vectors.

Energized Leader
My ideal manager must always demonstrate clear vision on what needs to be accomplished while being inspired and enthusiastic about the challenges and the things we’ll learn along the way. Details on how to implement this vision may not always be clear but my ideal manager will know how to use me and my teammates to figure out all the challenges instead of doing all the work himself and giving us just “work”. Things will not always be easy and we will sometimes feel beaten down and ready to give up. My ideal manager will pick us up and instill in us that energy necessary to break any wall and touch any goal, no matter how hard that would be. More important, at the end, my ideal manager will show us our great results and will say: “This is all your doing guys! THANK YOU!”.

Signs you are not working with an ideal manager:
– when you are leaving from a meeting with your manager you do not feel energized, ready again to break mountains down in order to get this project succesfull.
– your manager is presenting team’s achievements as his own

Trustful Partner
My ideal manager must not behave as my boss. He must be my partner. Moreover, he must be a partner I can fully trust in. I should be able to talk about any issues, concerns I have about my work or my skills without the fear of being judged or punished in the next annual review. Even if I am fully responsible for my work, my ideal manager should always be available to help me and to support me unconditionally. My ideal manager should be the safety net that will allow me to take (calculated) risks and to try out new things in order to get that super-challenging project done.

Handling mistakes – this is very important. When I am doing mistakes my ideal manager should not focus on criticizing me but on working with me to help me understand what I did wrong and how to do better next time. He should help me use this (already difficult) experience to grow. He should create a safe environment where people are encouraged to try new things with the risk of making mistakes instead of an environment where people fear for being punished for making any mistake.

NOTE: While I am encouraging a certain relaxation toward “making mistakes” topic, I am not saying that mistakes are good no matter what. I believe that the following saying explains best how this topic should be approached: “Do not be afraid to make mistakes. Make sure you do not make the same mistake twice!”

Signs you are not working with an ideal manager:
– you are thinking about moving out of the team / company and you do not feel comfortable to talk to your manager until it’s too late (e.g. you’ve already signed the next contract)
– your failures are your failures alone; your successes are team’s successes (or worse – your manager’s)

People Developer
My ideal manager must genuinely care about my personal development and make sure he finds the perfect compromise between his interests (delivering the new projects) and mine (new skills, new career opportunities etc). More importantly, my ideal manager is a person I can constantly learn from on topics like software engineering and technologies we are / going to be using in our project to project management, product management and the market we are playing in. Yes… my ideal manager needs to be THAT good!

NOTE: I need to clarify one thing which is usually not well understood… My manager is NOT responsible for my personal development. I am the only guy responsible here. My manager’s role is as enabler: to identify opportunities to align project goals and mine so we can have the ideal scenario where projects are being successfully executed while I am also growing professionally.

Signs you are not working with an ideal manager:
– your manager never asked you what do you wanna do / explore in the next 3-5 years
– you are not taken into account for opportunities you are interested in

Am I asking to much???

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I hate complainers

“You know what I hate most?” my godfather almost screamed at me. “I hate complainers”.

This is a man I have huge respect for and, as time passes by, I continue to be amazed by him. He has passed the 40 years old mark and he is a true role-model for me and my wife on how to tackle life while being completely devoted to his family. He started as a seaman in his early 20s and since then he worked on almost any type of ships doing anything it was required of him. At some point he had the guts to re-evaluate his future perspectives and took the decision to stay home for 5 years and graduate the naval academy institution. This was a bold and difficult decision as it implied a heavily cut of revenues during this 5 years period but this would give him the right to dream at a much better job in the near future.

Now he is still on track with pursuing his long-term plan. But it’s so hard. At 41 years old he has just finished the naval academy and he is regarded as simple cadet (no matter how many experience he has as seaman). You may imagine that this makes the job of finding engagements in this new role much more harder but… you’ll never see him complain. He knows, he is fully confident that he will get through this challenge too.

“Let me tell you what I mean” my godfather continued after calming himself a bit. “In my seaman years I have to admit that I’ve had my share of easy-money jobs. But I was also forced to accept some really tough ones too. From cleaning filthy water filters while staying in harbors to learning how to use transmission equipments as big as this house in a matter of days – these were really tough jobs. But I did them because, at that time, this was my job and this was expected from me. And I have never complained.”

He stopped for a bit and he looked like he was forcing himself to start a difficult topic. “I will never forget my Nord Sea fishing time…” he continued with a soft voice like he was announcing a defeat. “It was a crazy time. We were working 6 days per week and we were not allowed to sleep more than 15-20 minutes every 3-4 hours. The waves were bigger than this house and we had to have ropes around our bodies to not slip into the sea. At night the work kept going. We were not able to see the waves so we’ve learned to hear and anticipate the danger. In the 7th day of the week we were allowed to stay in a motel room. I still remember my fingers being so swollen that I was not able to close my fist. Every piece of m body was hurting like hell.”

He seemed to look beyond me while he was remembering all these things. Then, suddenly, he realized that I was there, and he addressed to me with a new found energy: “But you know what? I’ve never complained. This was what I signed-up for, right? This was my job. It was hard, you cannot imagine how hard and, at some point, I’ve realized that I cannot go on like this. So what I was suppose to do? Complain? Hell no! I took action. I have accepted that something needs to change and I knew that if I do not do it, no-one will do it for me. So I’ve started looking for something else and, as soon as I got the opportunity, I moved to another job. After 6 weeks I made the move. Less money but it was the right decision for me and my family.”

“I simply do not understand and cannot stand complainers. To me, it’s only about decisions YOU must take about your life. If you end-up discovering that something is no longer right for you, why complaining about it would do any good? To me the more natural thing to do is to simply make a decision on how to deal with that situation: make a change or not. “Not making any change” is also a decision! But you should better make-up your mind and move on with your life instead of endlessly and hopelessly complain… Who’s gonna TAKE CONTROL of your life if you don’t? Who should make these decisions for you if you don’t? Conclusions like “It was out of my hands” or “There was nothing I could do about it” just drive me crazy. There is ALWAYS something that can be done and it’s YOUR responsibility to figure it out. NOBODY ELSE’S!”

Common sense, right? And yet, I could not get rid off the feeling of deep shame when I was thinking about the countless examples of myself complaining about my issues instead of… well… SOLVING them. All of us have our moments when we believe that we have taken too many hits, when all seems overwhelming and that we should simply give up. And then we start complaining because this seems the easiest thing to do. That’s the moment when we need a cold shower, a reset, a boost of confidence, a wake up to reality. This is exactly what I have received that evening from my godfather and I have realized once again how lucky I am to have him close to me.

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This is important! This is NOT!

Working in multi-national companies has its highs and lows. So far this was my sole experience since graduation. I do not regret it. It allowed early exposure to things I have never dreamt of at such a young age: collaboration with teams in US, India, Israel, UK, Sweden, France (just to name a few: my passport was full of visas only 5 years after hiring), working with cutting edge technology (really! working on next generation processors is an unique feeling) or exposure to icon companies (I still treasure the feeling I had when was assigned to train Ericsson’s team on a VoIP solution – I could not believe that I will be teaching Ericsson engineers on telecom topics – I was 27).

Besides exposure to bigger projects, bigger clients or working with teams around the world, there is another idea that is usually associated with big (multi-national) companies: overhead (also known as process or methodologies). It is said that if you work in a big company you have to admit that things will no longer be done fast and smooth. Instead you will be cluttered with procedures, policies with exotic roles with fancy job descriptions and with templates that will both slow-down and constrain your next move.

I do not think that this view is entirely false. But I also believe that it is too simplistic to think like this. I remember a team meeting back in my Freescale days where we were complaining that “Freescale is doing THIS and Freescale is doing THAT…”. At some point, our manager stopped our whining to ask a simple question: “Who is Freescale?”.

It’s easy to throw the blame on an abstract concept like a company. But really, if we are honest with ourselves, in any company (big or small) our way-of-doing-things is influenced by a limited number of people: our teammates, teams we are collaborating with and some support roles that connect us with the customers. This is our world and it is up to us to shape it the way we want. And if we have clutter around us, we may be the ones causing this – not THE company.

Why this clutter? I believe that the main reason is that we often forget what is really important and what is NOT. More important, we fail to differentiate between the end-goal and the things that help us achieve that end-goal (I call this support-functions). And when these support-functions slowly become the main thing that we care / talk about – that’s the moment when we loose focus. That’s the moment when we no longer work on what’s really important. And this has nothing to do with a multi-national company (but it seems like such a company is a perfect environment for such situations because big projects / teams typically need support-functions).

Let’s take a common example: we have a product that needs to be delivered to certain clients. What’s THE important thing in this case? What’s THE end-goal in this case? Simple: to deliver the product that our customers want. Everything else falls in support-function area, something that should help us reach that end-goal but should not be seen as end-goals. And when we shift our focus / energy FROM doing the things we need to deliver the product TO perfecting the support-functions, when we value MORE the output of the support-functions THAN the actual end-product – then we get into troubles. Don’t get me wrong: perfecting the support-functions in order “to deliver the product that our customers want” is the right thing to do. What I am challenging here is perfecting the support-functions for all the OTHER reasons. Here are some examples…

Development methodology. Projects usually start by selecting a development methodology to put some structure around the development activities performed by a team (that’s the main purpose of a “development methodology”). Depending on the project we choose Waterfall, Scrum, Kanban or something else that seems appropriate for the current project (the realization that there is no such a thing like one “development methodology” that will handle any type of project is, to me, the first sign that I am talking with an experienced engineer…). So far, everything is fine. The problem comes when we go deep into project execution and we discover that the project particularities force us to no longer be compliant with the way the methodology is described in the books. “We have a big problem” someone says. “What we do is not Scrum. We need to change the way we do things so we can comply with the Scrum methodology”. Really? Is this THE important thing we need to focus on? To be compliant with the Scrum methodology as it was described in some books? Or “to deliver the product that our customers want”? I am not saying that we should dismiss Scrum best practices and “throw ourselves” into chaotic project execution. I’m just saying that this is approached incorrectly. My point is that such analysis (or the “problem definition”) should start from the “important thing” (the product and the client), identify the issues from this perspective (which is the only one that matters) and work from there toward solutions. And if we discover that following a Scrum best-practice will help us with the problem we have, then we should strive implementing it. However, implementing the Scrum best-practice just because “we are not compliant with the theory”… I would challenge the value of such an effort.

Design documents. A typical software development workflow will imply several steps: requirements gathering, design, coding, testing, documentation, release (and maintenance). The design process is, often, associated with heavyweight design schemes, UML compliance and low-level details burned into extremely complex diagrams. Really significant efforts is invested in creating these complex design artifacts which (I have to admit) are looking impressive and give the feeling that you are talking with an expert in the subject… still, is this THE important thing we need to focus on? Is the perfect, complete, UML-compliant, N-level design scheme our end-goal we should strive for? Or the real end-goal is “to deliver the product that our customers want”? If you put things into this perspective, you may start to understand what is the real purpose / value-added of the design phase: to present the design idea and to get an early validation from the team AND have it documented in some form for later review. Then, you may find out that just a simple drawing on a board during a discussion with the team and a picture of the board afterwards is much more valuable for the actual end-goal (creating the right product) than the heavyweight/time-consuming UML-compliant scheme. I remember that even defining some header files (the API) for a certain module was (for that particular case) a good enough output from the design meeting that helped the team to get aligned on how components should interact with each other. Then, everyone went back to work on the important thing…

A similar example is with test plans. I saw many examples where test plans easily transform into work-of-arts with huge amount of information and complex templates, with pictures, diagrams and references to other documents. There’s nothing wrong with that. What worried me, however, was the feeling of accomplishment I have seen on the face of the engineer that submitted the test plan: it is finished / it’s done! What exactly is done? For him, the test plan was the end-goal, the important thing that needed to be completed. Now, we can celebrate… Wrong! The test plan is just a tool that allows us to put some structure around testing the product features. The purpose of the test plan is to help us built the right product. It is a tool, not an end-goal. The end-goal, the important thing, is still “to deliver the product that our customers want”. Focus on that. Celebrate that.

Makes sense?

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How I finished my college with maximum grades

This is one of my favorite stories. Not only because it puts me in a great light (OK, OK – I admit, this important too) but because years later, when I have started to read books on time-management, focus, achievers, etc I found that I have applied all those techniques without any idea about those well-defined frameworks for “successful people”. This is also a nice story that helps explaining these techniques that, maybe, may seem quite abstract and difficult to be implemented in day-to-day life. However, if a 19 years old student with no prior knowledge on the existing theory (e.g. “Getting Things Done” or “Zen To Done”) was able to successfully apply them, I would claim that anybody can.

My first college year was quite challenging: I ended the year with average or low-to-average grades which for me was not good enough. During vacation I have spent some time and looked back on what has happened (… yeah, I was a nerd those days – you just caught me…) and soon I have discovered that the main reason for these poor results was that I had no time to study all exam material. Between two consecutive exams we had 6 days and that was not enough for me to understand all the 12 courses. Really??? No – that was not the real problem at all. The real problem was that 6 days to study for the exam seems a huge amount of time – so you start reading half a course a day until you only have 1-2 days until the exam and another 8 courses to read.

I was quite enthusiastic about this discovery (… yeah, I was the king of all nerds…) and starting with the second year I have defined an “exam studying” system. The first 3 days I have allocated for the reading and understanding of all 12 courses: this means a 4 course per day norm. The 4th day was allocated for my first review and the 5th day was allocated for the second review. The 6th day was a risk buffer – now I call it risk buffer but during these days I called it relaxation time.

As you can see, meeting my daily mini-milestones will allow me not only to read the entire material but also to review it. Has this approach changed anything? Well… starting from that moment I have received the maximum grade for ALL my exams for the remaining 4 years of college (… a new word should be invented for me… nerd is too soft…)! And I cannot say that I was very stressed during this period – I’ve always felt that I had things under my control. And the 6th day was a great bonus for me…

What was the real key success factor in this example? Was it the plan? For sure the plan was an important factor. However I will have to say that the plan execution was the real key of success. You may create the most brilliant plan and will still mean nothing if you will execute it miserably. Once I have set as a goal to go through 4 courses per day then this was what I had to do: not 3 courses, not 3 and a half – it must be 4! For me the day could not end if that goal was not achieved. In fact, I’ve always tried to do a little bit more: 4 and a half or 5 courses per day. Being a little bit ahead of the plan kept my morale high and this helped keeping my productivity level high too. Being a little bit ahead of plan also helped me in situations when I was not able to understand a certain concept and I had to go to the library to find more information about that. This was an unplanned effort which could have messed my overall plans – here the time gained by executing activities a little faster than planned helped me a lot. Let’s put it this way: I never had to use the 6th day for studying (“Heroes 2” was an awesome game at that time…).

For a long time I was convinced that the sole ingredient for this performance was the solid plan execution. At some point, however, when my day-to-day responsibilities increased in complexity, I saw two other very important ingredients. The first one is focus. Even if I had to study for 5 exams throughout a month, I’ve never studied for 2 exams at the same time. I remember that I had 5 files full of courses (one for each exam) stacked on a big pile on my desk. I took the first file only, processed it during the 6 days period, took the exam, and throw it to the processed files. Then, only then, I took the following file, and the process was repeated.

The other very important ingredient was the relaxation period. The fact that I never had to use the 6th day for studying really helped me a lot in doing the transition from one exam to the next one. That was the day were I could disconnect from the “learning” effort and really re-fill mentally for my next exam. It was like a reset that allowed me to go through the hole month of exams smoothly.

Now that you saw the routine, I wander if this was new information for you. I bet it was not. These advices have already been heavily presented in so many Time Management books so I do not pretend that I can take you by surprise. Still, what continues to surprise me every-time I tell this story is how easy it was for me to apply these techniques when I knew so little about the theory behind them and how hard it is to do the same now when I know so much. Why? I’m not sure I have the true answer but sometimes I feel that the reason is that sometimes I am focusing on solving the wrong problem. Back then, my goal was to take a great grade at my exam. That was the goal, the problem to solve. Now, it feels like my goal is achieving great time management… I sometimes forget that time management is just a tool, a framework. It should not be seen as the end goal but something that will help you achieve something really important to you. Makes sense?

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If you will not do it, nobody else will do it for you…

I am still experiencing feelings of huge embarrassment when I am rewinding in my mind this scene. It was about 10 year ago in a one-on-one meeting I had with my manager. Back then I was a bright, smart, capable engineer that can do everything and that should deserve anything – at least that was my picture of myself then.

We’ve spent 1 hour or so accusing my manager that he his not spending enough time to think about my personal growth. In his role he is (obviously) responsible with figuring out my strengths, identifying opportunities for me and telling me what I need to do in order to be even more successful (remember – I was already a success when this conversation happened). He IS responsible with defining my career. Who else is, right?

I still remember my manager’s face: he was perplexed. He was a young manager (within months of experience), brilliant and experienced engineer (so far, he may be the best engineer I have worked with) but he was a young manager. And it turns out a wild and naive youngster is a bigger / harder problem to solve than porting a real time operating system on the latest DSP processor released by Motorola (trust me, it is).

The one-on-one meeting was far from being a success. Instead of receiving answers and a clear recipe for my career I have received difficult and annoying questions: “What are the things you like and dislike?”, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”, “What do you like more: writing code alone, discussing technical problems with your colleagues, creating project plans?”. But no answer. Clearly, we are dealing with the worst manager possible.

10 years have passed and I am still ashamed of that meeting. My life has changed significantly when I have discovered a very important thing. There is a key word in the Personal Development concept: it’s personal. Finding out what you like and what your career should look like is only your responsibility. In fact it should be the first item on your work-related prioritized list. For some people, figuring this out may be incredibly easy: “I cannot see myself doing anything else than writing music”. For others, the process may be very complex and lengthly, may imply lots of trials and experimentations, may require several “leap-of-faith” decisions and may translate into painful lessons. But all this is your responsibility to handle. If you will not do it, nobody else will do it for you…

What about your manager? What is his responsibility? He is there to help you, or better said, to support you. Once you know what the next step should be, the manager should be there to help you make that step: identify opportunities, coach you, train you, encourage and guide you. But do not expect this from your manager: “You know what Mihai? Your drawings are nice. You should be an architect.”

A couple of weeks ago I had my one-on-one with one of the engineers reporting to me. This time I was the manager that had to deal with an interesting issue. This time the issue was time. “I want to do this and that and get involve here and there but I cannot. I have meetings 6 hours per day and no more time for anything else”. My response was instant: “Do you want me to help with your calendar?”. “Yes, please!” came, unfortunately, the answer…

We leave in a crazy world where, if you are not careful, your time will quickly be filled-up with things that may be so important and urgent for others but not necessarily for you. Who do you think should be responsible for making sure that your time (one of the most precious assets that you have) is properly managed.

Your manager? Do you really want him to manage your time? The best that will happen is that he will make sure that things that are urgent and important for HIM will be well addressed in your calendar. Is THIS what you want? If you will not do it, nobody else will do it for you…

And finally, what about your dreams, your “WHAT IFs” and the answer to the simple question: “Is this what will make me happy”? Who do you think it should be responsible for this? Your boss, HR department, friends, wife/husband, parents? If you will not do it, nobody else will do it for you…

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