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Archive for August, 2009

Task-Managing Series, Part 1: Introduction to a Self-Experiment

29/08/2009 1 comment

Usually, this is where I would write an introduction on how effective task-management is becoming more and more important in this information-age etc. etc. I hope you don’t mind if I get right to the point, instead.

Goal of the Experiment

I will test out a few different methods of task-management, centred around task-lists or to-do-lists. The objective is to find an optimal method for keeping track of all the relevant tasks in my life. With any kind of task-management, it’s important to find a good balance: A system that leads me to excessive micro-management and distracts me from the big picture is just as useless as one that keeps me focused only on the larger tasks, letting me forget the smaller, maybe mundane but nonetheless important tasks.

The reason I’m doing this as an experiment is that I want to avoid just using the first method that comes along. I suspect that any kind of systematic task-management is better than no task-management at all, so whatever I try first will probably already seem like a fairly good idea. By deliberately trying several different approaches, I wont succumb to laziness and just settle for the first method I come across in a book or on a blog.

Here are the different methods I will test:

  • Having an ongoing list vs. rewriting the list every day (i.e. rewriting any unfinished tasks for the next day).
  • Setting tasks for just one day vs. setting tasks for a few days in advance.
  • Using software vs. writing tasks down on paper.
  • Software I will try: ta-da-list, todoist, OrchestrateHQ

I will try each variation for at least one week to give myself a chance to get used to the method. It’s possible that something seems uncomfortable to do the first few times but then becomes habitual and turns out to be a good solution after all. I wont try every possible combination of the above variations, just the ones that make sense – for example, if I find that using an ongoing list fits me better with one piece of software I won’t test ongoing vs. rewritten lists for every other software as well.

Benchmarks

When it comes to deciding which method is the best one for me, I want to rely on more than just my subjective experience. How I subjectively feel about each method is an important factor, of course, but it’s not terribly reliable and so I want to set two objectively measurable benchmarks:

  1. Tasks set / Tasks done per day.
  2. Time spent task-managing.

The first factor is a bit tricky: Ideally, I want to be completing close to 100% of the tasks I set for myself every day. This is easier when I set fewer tasks, but that’s not necessarily beneficial. The goal is to find a method that helps me set an adequate amount of achievable tasks and complete all, or almost all of them. Looking at the ratio of tasks set and tasks completed for each day should help me adjust accordingly.

The second factor, how much time I spend managing my tasks, is simpler: I don’t want to be wasting time managing the tasks when I should be getting them done. A task-managing method that uses less time is therefore always better than one that uses a lot of time.

There is one final benchmark that I will apply to whatever method I settle for: I will report on whether I stick with it. A few months after I have decided on what method to use, I will report on how it went, whether it was easy to continue and whether I modified anything about the method.

Getting Things Done

Since you are on the internet, you probably know about Getting Things Done by David Allen. I haven’t read this book yet, but I intend to – after my task-managing experiment. The reason I am postponing reading GTD is that I want to come to it having already gathered some experience on the subject of task-management. I think this will make it more interesting to read GTD and I might be able to learn more from it this way. If I find the ideas in GTD convincing, I will test them out as well and post about it here.

I don’t yet know what the focus of GTD is. I do know that my ideas for task-managing are mainly concerned with short-term tasks and less with long-term goals and the big picture. I intend to experiment with methods for longer-term task-managements somewhere down the road.

For now, stay tuned for updates on my initial experiments.

This post is part of a series.
Part 1: Introduction to the Experiment (currently viewing)
Part 2: Optimal Method

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – Why it’s an important book and why you don’t need to feel discouraged by it’s message

29/08/2009 1 comment
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Picture: Paperback book cover of Outliers

If you work hard, believe in yourself and persevere, you will be successful.

Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Also, how familiar is this storyline to you: Person from very humble beginnings makes an invention/starts a small business, has a very hard time at first and almost loses everything but manages to finally rise to the top and becomes very rich and successful.

That’s basically the standard success story that you can find in many, many biographical accounts of successful people. The message these stories carry is usually that success was achieved through hard work and personal sacrifice at times and, more importantly, that therefore anyone can make it.

A different perspective

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers has the subtitle “The Story of Success”, which may lead you to expect an elaborate version of the standard story mentioned above. On the book’s description on the back cover (“Outliers will transform the way we understand success”) as well as in the introduction, it is quickly made clear that Outliers approaches the subject of success from a completely different angle, though. In short, Gladwell argues that, when it comes to success, circumstances matter. In fact, circumstances that are outside of personal control, like when and where you were born, how your parents raised you and even your family and cultural legacy, may be more important to success than anything you can personally control.

One striking example of this comes from an observation made by Canadian Psychologist Roger Barnsley, concerning Ice Hockey players: The vast majority of Ice Hockey players in advanced leagues in Canada are born in January. Many more are born in February or March, but there are very few players born in the later months of the year. What seems completely arbitrary at first actually has quite a simple cause: The cut-off date for entering any kind of Hockey league in Canada is January 1st. A child that wants to join a Hockey team is assigned to one according to it’s birth date. As an example, a boy who turns 10 years old on January 2nd will be in the same team with other kids who won’t turn 10 till the end of the year. Obviously, a boy who is 10 years old has a huge advantage over a boy who is, say, 9 years and one month old. But if the two have birth dates that bracket around the cut-off date (e.g. December 2nd and January 2nd), they will be playing in the same league. The boy born early in the year will be taller, stronger, have better developed motor-skills etc. He will be seen as especially talented and his chances of being promoted to a more elite team are higher. This puts the players born close to the cut-off date on a fast-track to success from an early age (see also: Matthew Effect).

The Good News

The book offers many more examples, stories and studies uncovering unexpected and interesting connections between beneficial circumstances and success. All in all, this may be very discouraging. At times you could almost get the impression that we are living in a deterministic world after all. If circumstances matter that much, what’s the point in even trying? If I was born at the wrong time, in the wrong place and without extraordinary opportunities, what’s left for me to do?

Well, there is one chapter in the book describing the so-called 10000-hour rule and it contains a crucial message to everyone trying to “make it”. The ten-thousand-hour rule originates from a study conducted by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues at the Berlin Music Academy. Examining the lifestyles and habits of the musicians the researchers found one fundamental, crucial difference between those considered world-class and those who were merely very good musicians. That difference is the time they had spent playing their instruments. The researchers found that the best musicians simply had been spending more time each day, since longer, practicing with their instrument. No musician was exceptionally good despite not putting in too many hours and no musician was sub-par despite investing many hours into practice. The study seems to suggest that there is no such thing as talent among musicians and the conclusion was that, on average, one must put in about ten-thousand hours of practice in order to reach the skill-level of a world-class expert.

Now, there are two things to keep in mind here: First, it depends on what exactly you do during those ten-thousand hours, i.e. how effective your practice/training is. This is something Dr. Ericsson has also studied and I will elaborate on this in future posts. Secondly, ten-thousand hours is a lot of time. As Malcolm Gladwell puts it: “[…] The people at the very top don’t just work harder or much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

To give a brief idea of how much ten-thousand hours are: If you deliberately practice a skill for a whopping three hours every day (including weekends), it will still take you almost ten years to get ten-thousand hours under your belt… Still, the findings from Dr. Ercisson’s and similar studies imply that there is truth to the whole “anyone can make it” thing.

Reorientation

Though I picked out this ten-thousand-hour rule as a hopeful example, the main message of Gladwell’s book remains: Circumstances matter and many contributing factors to great success are outside of personal control. This is, to my mind at least, undoubtedly true and I think it’s a message worth spreading. Don’t get me wrong: I believe in personal progress, I believe that humans are incredibly flexible and adaptable and that just because you have been one way for x years does not mean you cannot make a change anymore. I believe that you can positively change almost every aspect of your life, no matter where you come from and where you were born. Outliers does not contradict any of this, but it does show that we might be getting our ideas of what wealth and success mean from the wrong sources. What Outliers shows is that you will not be as successful as the worlds Bill Gates’, Warren Buffets, Richard Bransons etc. unless you are helped along by very beneficial circumstances. It shows that hoping to become like the biggest stars in the world might be too much like hoping to win the lottery, even if we are willing to make a great effort.

It also shows that we could be recruiting many more great athletes if we had more than one age-tier for young players to enter leagues and teams. Will someone get on that, already?

For more great reads, see my Recommended Books page.

Categories: Books Tags: , , , , ,

Please excuse my horrible English

25/08/2009 Leave a comment

Photo by Markus Rödder

Photo by Markus Rödder

I have a rather odd linguistic background. I grew up and live in the German speaking part of Switzerland, which means that I mostly speak Swiss-German and I also had to learn German, in order to be able to read books, write properly and gain the ability to communicate with at least some of the people outside Swiss borders. Since my father is Irish, I spoke English at home, at least part of the time. I read in English much more often than in German. I practically always buy books in English and spend a fair (too fair?) amount of time on the Internet, mainly the English part of it.

The result of all this is that I have a reasonable English vocabulary, but much too little practice in actually using it. I have a weird accent when I speak English and I am next to clueless about English grammar.

One reason for me to start this blog is to practice English writing. On the one hand, it offers me a chance for simple learning by doing and on the other hand, it will encourage me to learn a bit about punctuation, proper syntax and such. I also hope to improve my writing style and learn to deliver content in well-rounded, clear and entertaining way.

It won’t be a just-rambling-on-about-myself blog, though. I will write about self-developement experiments, as well as post about things on the broader subject of making progress successfully. I hope to build an interesting and useful source for anyone looking to make effective changes in their lives, without succumbing to the usual self-help babble and fruitless “top ten ways to improve your whatever” lists.

Until then, please excuse my horrible English.

Categories: Rambling