Positive Outliers

Backwards Thinking

I like history… because it’s happened.

Clarissa Dickson Wright

Plans look forward.

Reviews look backward.

What’s happened has happened. In our culture of the urgent, we are apt to say, Forget it. Let’s move on. Today and tomorrow are more important.

However, is that really true? Is it even wise?

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana

Of course, there are all kinds of things that will stop our deliberate, objective and critical reflection on what we have been doing. The culture of hustle and the tyranny of the urgent has no time for review.

When I worked as a project management consultant, I would find clients were intrigued to learn how organisations and their projects could significantly improve their performance over time by stewarding their lessons learned. Methods I taught began to emphasise the importance of documents such as the Lessons Learned Log.

What I saw in practice, however, was that there were few projects disciplined enough to record and review these lessons. Other matters were more urgent. Hurry drove them on. Tomorrow was more important, more malleable, under our control. Lessons were forgotten and lost. Spending time on preserving and reviewing lessons learned can seem like a bureaucratic luxury. “Yeah, yeah. We’ll get to that later when we have time. Right now we need to do this, and this and this!”

What if we were to shift our focus from planning to review?

What if we were to do something deeply counter-cultural? What if we were to shift our focus from planning to review? Most of us have never tried this in the context of chronic stress.

Let’s experiment. What is the worse that could happen? This might hold the key to thriving in these uncertain times–and not just for corporate projects; it could be the key to breakthrough with our personal work.

What we notice in our story so far matters.

What we notice in our story so far matters. It is our opportunity for learning and improving.

When we review, we can take one of four actions: we can affirm what we are doing, we can adjust our work, we can adapt it, or even abort it altogether.

Affirm: Steady as she goes

A brief check that everything is going as it should do gives us confidence. More than that we are rather more alert to external changes than if we continue hurtle headlong into the future with little regard for external threats and changes.

In his illuminating book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, surgeon and author Atul Gawande highlights how pausing before a critical execution by running through a simple checklist can have significant impacts on the overall outcome. And how did that checklist come about? It came through thousands of hours of accumulated experience, the experience that was valued by being studied, recorded, analysed for crucial patterns.

He highlights one case in point, where a global initiative to use surgical checklists on otherwise-routine surgery seemed to experience surgeons at first pedantic, tedious and unnecessary. Part of a particular checklist was for each member of the surgical team to introduce themselves by name before an operation.

Trivial, wouldn’t you think? Yet when introduced into a culture where female surgical nurses were not allowed to speak, it so empowered one nurse to speak out her name to the rest of the team that when the male surgeon was about to amputate the wrong limb, she spoke up and stopped him, telling him not to be so stupid!

Periodically reflecting has improved my personal workflows considerably.

The ritual of a review, from codified experience, begins to reveal all kinds of positive side effects as we take the next step, not least a greater confidence as we step forward.

Adjust: Course Corrections

The practice of review, of course, is not just for teams, projects and global initiatives. We can find that doing this on a personal level pays dividends, assuring us that we are building upon our past experience.

I have found, in my personal periodic reviews, reflecting on better ways to do something has improved my workflows considerably, saving precious hours and increasing my confidence as I work.

There is the illusion of precision when we see long projects as outside spectators.

During the Apollo Lunar programme, we might assume that the command module was sent with precision from the Earth’s orbit to the moon.

Not so. In fact, every few minutes, the crew needed to make thruster burns to adjust the craft towards the moon. It might appear that, instead, the command module with its lunar landing craft was more or less thrown in the general direction of the moon, a 1/4 million miles away, and there were regular course corrections throughout that journey.

There are moments of innovation when we realise that there is a better way…

We do this all the time when we reflect on the routines and workflows we use. And there are moments of innovation when we realise there is a better way of doing these things. The practice of reflection makes individuals more efficient.

Adapt: Borrowing from Other Areas

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Charles Caleb Colton

Many of the most innovative breakthroughs in science, engineering, education and medicine came when someone ‘borrowed’ an idea or example from somewhere else. David Epstein consistently illustrates this in his book, Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

This is true in our own personal work. It might be a change in the medium we use. We might publish a long-form blog article. It attracts interest. So we use that to publish a book, which goes deeper and attracts that kind of audience.

It might be a change of audience or customer. We adapt a product for a different kind of customer and suddenly it becomes popular.

Caroline leads a counselling service to vulnerable and distressed members of the community. When COVID-19 lockdown first hit, she and her team obviously moved this online. This was adapting the medium.

However, she also began to access the power of deliberately activating joy through another online service. So, she adapted this product too,  so that she organising a daily ‘Well-being Workout’ for her team. The affective power of this has added an additional dimension to the results they are seeing with their clients, spilling over from her team.

In reality, there is never a formula or a methodology that will work in every context. There is no silver bullet. Self-aware leaders understand this. Adapt is the perspective of looking for examples from other areas, applying and modifying them appropriately into their context.

A review can shift us beyond mere efficiency to breakthrough and effectiveness.

This is where the practice of review contributes rather more than confidence and efficiency; it brings breakthrough and effectiveness.

Abort: Cutting Our Losses

Bad projects never die; they just go on draining resources long past their usefulness.

Practical People Engagement: Leading Change Through the Power of Relationships

Sometimes we learn that the work we are doing is not working, is not the best use of our time, and no longer connects with the dream or the purpose we had thought it might have done in the past.

Aborting something, though, can be pretty brutal, particularly if others are involved in the project with you. It sometimes invites an overwhelming sense of bereavement.

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize-winning psychologist, has identified a number of dangerous biases in our thinking when it comes to moments like this. He calls this one the sunk cost fallacy. Our attachment to a project is often rooted in all the effort and time and cost that has already gone into it. Rather than decide, rationally, that it is no longer working, there is that emotional part of us that is in a kind of denial, because we do not want to face up to the idea that it has all been for nothing. ‘Toughing through’ seems like good leadership. So we continue pumping more and more time, energy, and other resources into this dead duck.

No, sometimes, we can be more effective, more fruitful if our future is free of this liability. So we prune it off, for more growth.

Shifting our Focus is Key

This is one of the key areas where we can distinguish ourselves as creative professionals, in our teams and in our projects, particularly now in times of persistent and rabid uncertainty.

… particularly now in times of persistent and rabid uncertainty.

In conclusion, then, I believe that when we shift from an emphasis on planning to review, it is key for our thriving in uncertainty… in our self-motivation, in our projects, in our communities and across the world.

The Seven Keys to Exceptional Work

The Seven Keys eBook

Discover & Practice the Seven Key Areas that All High Performers Share

Download my free eBook

Positive Outliers Self-Awareness

The Only Thing that Matters is This

Photo by Matt Bero on Unsplash

In my last article, When Work Speeds Up, I used a short video to illustrate my point.

Allow me to do the same again in talking about priorities. This time the clip comes from a movie called City Slickers (1991), and this scene features two of the main characters, the old hardened cowboy, Curly, played by Jack Palance, and one of the city slickers on a ranch holiday, Mitch, played by Billy Crystal.

Is this true, though? Is it all about “figuring out the One Thing” or is this just Hollywood sentimental psychobabble?

There is no doubt about the fact that most of us have a tendency to take on more than we can handle, more commitments than one life can meet. All these different demands on us clamour for top priority, or at least for our momentary attention.


When I read Gary Keller’s, One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, I was intrigued to learn that the word priority, was always used in the singular in English until the nineteenth or early twentieth century. Maybe this was because we bought the lie that we couldn’t possibly have only one priority in the modern world.

We can dismiss pre-20th century wisdom as something quaint and naif from a more relaxed and stressless age, and say, “Now we must focus on many things.”

The problem is that our performance begins to take a dive when do this. Humans are not equipped, it seems, to deal with many things at once. Multi-tasking, loved by many who thrive on the adrenaline rush of feeling they are being super-productive, has been demonstrated to be a huge waste, a waste of time. This way of working requires switching the brain when we move from one task to another. We try to keep as many plates spinning as possible, but that is all we are doing. As we rush from one matter to another, there is a depletion of time and energy, not to mention cognitive confusion and emotional stress.

And we carry this foolish, crazy way of thinking into our organisations as well, making them dazed and internally competing towards this downward spiral.

So, what is the alternative?

Developing the Habit of the Daily MIT

At any moment in time, there is one thing that is needful. That is your MIT, your Most Important Task. This is true in the moment, for your day, in a project, in a month, in our lives – whichever time horizon you choose. And, as Curly said, “That’s for you to figure out.” The rest is about triaging all the calls for your attention, rejecting most of them, returning to the rest, but keeping your eyes on that priority.

I talk about this more in My Daily Bullet Journal Method.

Curly challenged Mitch to discover the One Thing for his life. For most of us, that will take some time, in prayer and meditation.

How about we set the bar a little lower to begin with? What about the next day? Ask yourself this question:

What is the most important thing for me to achieve in the next day that will make everything else easier, more achievable or irrelevant?

Let me know in the comments what you discovered using this approach.

A free course that takes you through the workflows of how I use bullet journaling for my Daily Heads Up, Gratitude List, Weekly and Monthly reviews.

Positive Outliers

Deep Work

The turn of the calendar year is traditionally a time where we review the past year and look forward to a fresh year, a fresh start.

As you look back over your year, what do you feel? Disappointed at so little achieved? Surprised, because you achieved more than you perhaps realised? A mixture of both?

For most of us, there is that feeling that we are not making as much progress as we would like. Often in the midst of busyness, we feel like we are spinning wheels: accelerating hard but getting nowhere.

Could the reason for this be partly the way we work? 

I read Deep Work recently, a book that raises key issues for us all in the way we work. 

I found the book to be a worthy and helpful exploration of how blocks of concentrated, uninterrupted work can make a massive difference to our contribution. It is written by Cal Newport, a young professor in computer science at Georgetown University, Washington DC. I recommend it.

Ultimately it comes down to this:

We can continue to live our lives as victims of distraction or we can take deliberate steps to do something about it.

We can continue to live our lives as victims of distraction or take deliberate steps to do something about it. #deepwork


Deep Work’s subtitle is Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

I have to say that I was a little wary of the word rules in Newport’s sub-title. I find that rules are often much-loved and defended by enthusiastic but legalistic beginners, who know a little but extrapolate it to anything and everybody.

But I need not have been too concerned. Newport takes a careful exploration of ways people have established deep work and concludes that one size does not fit all in the lifestyles of intense focused activity.

The Paradox of Work

I found Cal Newport’s analysis of the world of work fascinating. He explores a paradox: trends exist which show that in most fields of knowledge work – from academia to marketing, journalism, software engineering, to business consulting – deep work offer huge advantages to those that practice it consistently.  Yet, most organisations permit – and somethings consciously promote – environments that are hostile to periods of concentrated, uninterrupted work.

As a coach, I’m particularly aware of this in the lives of several of my clients.

Some quotes from Deep Work:

Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”

“Deep work should be a priority in today’s business climate. But it’s not.”

Cal Newport portrait

Cal Newport

Taking Ownership of My Productivity

It all starts by refusing to be a victim. #doingyourbestwork

Nevertheless, I am finding ways to protect my deep working. In my own book, Leading Yourself, I look at proper focus competing with distraction. Distraction is always crying out for our attention. Our route to success is largely determined by our owning this problem of distraction and dealing with it.

And there are others like me. These people begin to gain performance improvements in their work by separating themselves from the patterns of the overwhelmed and harrassed majority and produce excellence.

It all starts by refusing to be a victim, and by beginning to see oneself as powerful. It starts with adopting a new mindset towards oneself and one’s work. Then one finds techniques to defend and enhance one’s best work.

Free Email Series

Doing Your Best Work email series

I’m not a fan of New Year resolutions. But I do think at the turn of the year, often with an absence from being driven by workloads over the holidays, this is an excellent time to take stock.

I’m beginning a short email series on 2nd January, called Doing Your Best Work. Click here if you would like to receive these four emails. Pardon the pun, but…

I go deeper. 🙂

I wish you a better, more hopeful and effective New Year.

Personal Margin Self-Awareness

Interruptions at Work

One of the most common complaints I hear from clients is about their office environments, about how noisy or distracting they are. Where they can, I’m finding many people excuse themselves from their office to get serious, thought-intensive work done. In fact, some even argue that the age of the office as we know it is long past its usefulness.

You might have a very well organised personal system. You might be very clear on your goals, priorities and how you apportion your time. But it can all come to nothing on any given day if your colleagues, your team, or your boss interrupt you all the time.

The irony is that people who work in offices are knowledge workers. The knowledge worker’s key tool is not their computer but their brain. And the office environment, many times, is the most hostile environment for clear, concentrated thinking.

The knowledge worker’s key tool is not their phone nor their computer; it’s between their ears.

Sooner or later there is a discussion to be had around office etiquette, about where and when it is reasonable to interrupt someone. How someone should signal to everyone else that they are not to be interrupted.

Someone shared with me yesterday an interesting technique: a traffic light system of red, amber, and green.

  • Green means there is no constraint on interrupting that person.
  • Amber means that this colleague is engaged in something that has time urgency, but they might be interruptible with something that is both important and urgent.
  • Red means that the person doesn’t want any interruption … unless the building is burning down.

This sounds good.

The office environment is often the most hostile for clear, concentrated thinking.

It seems to me that part of the benefit of is this idea is that the whole team becomes more aware in this discussion of different gradations of importance and urgency, as well as the improved consideration they might begin to show to each other. However, it is probably best enforced and sustained by the entire team’s agreement and the team reviews it regularly; without this, you are unlikely to serious behaviour change throughout the group.

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

Alexander Graham Bell

A central problem in this whole issue is that an individual’s focus and concentration is such a subjective and intangible matter. It is very hard to measure. Distraction will express itself indirectly through measures of productivity, but again, the realms of knowledge work, comparing like for like is always going to be a problem.

I like the traffic light system. I like it more because it encourages an overt conversation between all members of the team of this hidden thing called concentration.

Let me ask you: Do you know of any similar group codes of conduct about permission to interrupt? Let me know in the comments below.