Getting Unstuck: Special Obstacles

I am reading Matt Perman’s How to Get Unstuck and taking on the writing exercise at the end of each chapter. More information in this article on the introduction.

The final part of the book includes six short chapters, each focused on a specific “laser” used to overcome certain types of obstacles. Below are some that I found interesting.

Adaptive Time Management

Adaptive time management builds on the assumptions that “many tasks overflow their boundaries, and unexpected things come up.” I envy anyone for whom those things are not true on a daily basis. When the original plan is diverted the focus should be on quality, not on keeping a project on time or on budget. An adaptive approach utilizes these strategies:

  • Trial and error
  • An iterative approach
  • Fast cycles with small planning blocks
  • Deliver value frequently

I have utilized these strategies on analytical projects for years without putting a name on it. But I am not sure how to apply those strategies to work-related projects and tasks that are not primarily matters of development (coding, data manipulation and/or building and testing a model). In my personal and family life I find it particularly difficult to overcome the unexpected. “Quality” in these areas might be a nebulous measurement of the development of character in my children, or health in my marriage. On time and on budget are not relevant pressures (just lack of time and money to do everything you might want to do).

Building willpower and discipline

Willpower can be preserved, and possibly increased, by:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Exercising
  • Avoiding things that would take you off course
  • Alternating between mindful and mindless tasks to give the brain time to recover.

Discipline is the ability to make and keep commitments.

Another way to express the cycle of getting unstuck: Learn what you need to do, commit to doing it, do it, evaluate the results, refine your approach, repeat.

Make your workspace clutter-free

My wife and I want to do a better job of doing this in our home but I’m dubious of the “science” of doing this for productive reasons. It may make some more productive but I do not believe in general in absolute maxims like this, and in particular in this case there is evidence in the other direction. Tim Harford, an economist-turned-journalist and podcaster has written an entire book on the subject. While I haven’t read Messy yet I have read articles like this one and listened to podcasts where he has shared that messiness (literal, and figurative in terms of working on many different things) has been the key for some very productive people historically.

The biggest problem for new leaders: not giving up roles of the individual contributor

Transitioning from producing to leading involves putting aside some responsibilities and picking up accountability for results. Putting aside responsibilities requires delegation, and gopher delegation should be avoided– giving people tasks, but not responsibility– as this will require the leader to stay too involved in the details.

This put a name to something I have seen many times at great cost to a team or department. The individual contributor, if they understand the objective, generally will know the best way to do something. But instead of communicating the objective or problem leaders will tell someone to do something a certain way. I believe that they want things done the best way, and would expect that someone tell them if there was a better way. In reality many individual contributors do not feel empowered to push back and just do as they’re told.

For better or worse, I am quite the opposite of this almost to a fault. I never regret stating my principles but there have been times where I should have ceded the point earlier because the cost of the time (or social capital) spent on the discussion exceeds the cost of the sub-optimality.