“A problem well stated is a problem half solved” Charles Kettering
The most read post ever on this blog is Amazon Staff Meetings: “No Powerpoint”. It shares the story of how Jeff Bezos banned powerpoint from management meetings at Amazon. His reason: “powerpoint is easy for the presenter and hard for the listener”. At Amazon, if you want to request resources, you must write out a 6 page memo laying out the details of your request.
This week’s video is How to Improve your Clarity of Thought.
What seems clear in your head is not clear. What you can write out and it still remains clear… this is clarity of thought.
I have a lot of posts on the blog about the mechanics of writing well:
“It’s extremely difficult to do something big. I think setting out to do something small is easier and more likely to work.” Seth Godin
If you are reading this, I will assume that you writing a book or are thinking about writing a book. What is holding you back? What obstacle sits between you and a flow-like state where all is clear and the words come?
I believe the biggest obstacle is not outside of you. I believe the biggest obstacle is inside of you.
Your anchor is dragging. More power to the motor won’t help. You must raise your anchor: The Resistance.
Stephen Pressfield says that our purpose lies behind what we most fear. The book we are most scared to write is the book we should be writing. If there is no fear related with the writing, it is probably not important.
Our ego is so determined to undermine us, that it will justify all forms of procrastination. The excuses will be rational. They will be true. They will be well argued. If we engage on their level, they will always win. Seth Godin calls this The Resistance. The closer we get to achieving our purpose, the louder the Resistance will rebel.
The Wisdom of Horses
Ranulph Fiennes is the oldest British man to have climbed Everest. He climbed it at his 3rd attempt when he was 65 years old. What changed on his 3rd attempt?
Ranulph’s wife is a horse trainer. When he was setting out on this last attempt, she said “do it like horses”.
Ranulph asked “what do you mean, do it like horses?”
His wife explained to him that a horse runs with no thought for the finish line. A horse runs until it drops from exhaustion. She told him to only ask himself “can I take one more step?” and if the answer is “yes”, take that one more step and repeat. Don’t allow your mind to consider more than the next step.
Great endurance athletes have learnt this. They have learnt to cheat their mind by refusing to allow it to think about the sheer scale of what they are taking on. They look at the summit of Everest and don’t really see it again until they are standing on it.
Prolific writers don’t think about the 60,000 words they need to write for the book, they think in pages or paragraphs or just word by word. John Grisham wrote one page per day before starting work at his day job. One page a day.
If a Gap Opens, The Resistance will win
The moment a gap of thinking is opened, the Resistance will step in and will win. If I stop to edit, I will kill this writing session. If an ultramarathon runner thinks “how much more have I got left?” his Resistance will win. The moment that the pause comes in, is when the Resistance has a chance of winning.
The Resistance will win in any argument. It has no morals nor any type of excuse that it will not use. It can only be conquered for moments when you commit completely to the flow, to the production of words, to the practice of piano, to make the sales call, to finish the drawing.
Performance = Potential – Self Sabotage
I spent some time last year interviewing successful endurance athletes like Kilian Jornet. I wrote about the Mental Models of High Performance. How do they manage to do the “impossible”?
The answer was quite simple: They don’t think. When they are running, biking or swimming they don’t let their mind wander off into the future. They stay present in this moment. At most the next stroke, or at the very most the next pause for a drink.
How to write a book?
Write like a horse. Can you do one more word? Write one more word. Keep going.
My favourite business books include Jim Collin’s “Good to Great“. It is easy to read, simple but clear about the hard decisions that differentiate the great companies from the mediocre. His new book, “Great by Choice” is out now. Jim Collins is renowned as someone who has intense discipline in his life. I loved when I found this text he wrote about his own process of writing:
Jim Collins on the Writing Process
“When I first embarked on a career that required writing, I devoured dozens of books about the process of writing. I soon realized that each writer has weird tricks and idiosyncratic methods. Some wrote late at night, in the tranquil bubble of solitude created by a sleeping world, while others preferred first morning light. Some cranked out three pages a day, workmanlike, whereas others worked in extended bursts followed by catatonic exhaustion. Some preferred the monastic discipline of facing cinder-block walls, while others preferred soaring views.
I quickly learned that I had to discover my own methods. Most useful, I realized that I have different brains at different times of day. In the morning, I have a creative brain; in the evening, I have a critical brain. If I try to edit in the morning, I’m too creative, and if I try to create in the evening, I’m too critical. So, I go at writing like a two piston machine: create in the morning, edit in the evening, create in the morning, edit in the evening…
Yet all writers seem to agree on one point: writing well is desperately difficult, and it never gets easier. It’s like running: if you push your limits, you can become a faster runner, but you will always suffer. In nonfiction, writing is thinking; if I can’t make the words work, that means I don’t know yet what I think. Sometimes after toiling in a quagmire for dozens (or hundreds) of hours I throw the whole effort into the wastebasket and start with a blank page. When I sheepishly shared this wastebasket strategy with the great management writer Peter Drucker, he made me feel much better when he exclaimed, “Ah, that is immense progress!”
The final months of completing Great by Choice required seven days a week effort, with numerous all-nighters. I had naively hoped after writing Good to Great that perhaps I had learned enough about writing that this work might not require descending deep into the dark cave of despair. Alas, the cave of darkness is the only path to producing the best work; there is no easy path, no shorter path, no path of less suffering. Winston Churchill once said that writing a book goes through five phases. In phase one, it is a novelty or a toy; by phase five, it is a tyrant ruling your life, and just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public. And so, exiting the caving blinking in the sunlight, we’ve killed the monster and hereby fling. We love this book, and have great passion about sharing it with the world—making all the suffering worthwhile.”
Writing is work. You have to push through. Every day. It doesn’t get easier.
I am a different person at different times of the day. I must use this better. I start days slowly. I am inspired at midnight through to 3am.
Sometimes throwing everything out is progress. It is not a step backwards.
What do you think? Do you write? What daily disciplines do you have?
In a recent article Tom Friedman of the New York Times ponders whether we have evolved from the Iron Age to the Industrial Age to the Information Age to the Age of Interruption, in which the “malady of modernity” is that we are now all afflicted with chronic multi-tasking and chronic partial attention induced by cell phones, email, the internet, handhelds, and our other many devices.
He wonders whether the Age of Interruption will lead to a decline of civilization as our ideas and attention spans shrink like slugs sprinkled with salt, and civilization at large gets collectively diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. Friedman then asks “Who can think or write or innovate under such conditions?”
In contrast, Friedman describes his local rain forest guide who:
“carried no devices and did not suffer from continuous partial attention. Just the opposite. He heard every chirp, whistle, howl or crackle in the rain forest and would stop us in our tracks immediately and identify what bird, insect or animal it was. He also had incredible vision and never missed a spider’s web, or a butterfly, or a toucan, or a column of marching termites. He was totally disconnected from the Web, but totally in touch with the incredible web of life around him.”
Do we collectively suffer from Chronic Partial Attention?
I found an interesting academic paper on designing user interfaces in the age of Interruption here.
Blog about what you are learning about, not what you are an expert in
I think you should be blogging. I know you have something to say.
Start Blogging Now!
13 “get-your-blog-going” thoughts from a conversation with Benedict on the road between Lausanne and Vevey this morning:
Write about what you are learning about, not what you are an expert in. If you are an expert, then publish your expertise in magazines, “big” blogs and other professional locations. Your blog is to open your thinking and wondering and learning up to the world and allow a conversation to form. Expertise ends conversation.
Write comments on other’s blogs. (I love comments on my blog. I shouldn’t, but I do. Ego thing I guess. Somehow adds a sense of meaning to this.) It motivates them and might just pull a good idea for a full blog post into your mind.
Force yourself to hit publish after 20 minutes. Do not leave blog posts unpublished. Start conversations. Do not try for perfection (you can always, always edit or delete a post if you really hate it).
Write “list” posts every-so-often. People like lists. My top 5 favourite free online tools. My top 10 books of all time. 6 ways to get your emails ignored. 17 habits of a fulfilling life. 6 reasons you should be blogging. If you can think of 3 ways… write 5 ways in the title and then push yourself to come up with 2 more. This brings out your creativity.
Write interview posts – ask some experts in your area of interest a few questions and post the transcript – or the video – or the audio. This gets the expert pointing people you your blog. If you pick other bloggers, they might send a reader or two over your way.
Use your own “voice”. Don’t try to be an expert or copy another person’s style. Write how you speak. Be you. If you have a strong opinion, say so. Don’t pussyfoot around and give watered down, two-sided argument versions of your opinion (like I was taught to do when writing my psychology essays in university). If you think education is broke, say it is broke. If you think Tim Ferriss is an ass, say he is an ass. If you love Seth Godin, say you love his stuff.
Publish a poor post every so often. It makes the next post easier. A blog is not perfection. It is not peer-reviewed academic journal. It is not edited magazine. It is a fun, simple, easy communications medium to share ideas. Don’t ever let it become a chore. Don’t make it hard work.
Use Twitter to connect to other bloggers and retweet them if you like their stuff. Use a tool like Hootsuite or Tweetdesk to read your twitter feed. I use Hootsuite. Create searches and lists of favourites. Don’t read everything.
Don’t try to “monetise”. Maybe when you get really big, but not when you are just starting. You can recommend books on Amazon and earn affiliate commision, or maybe recommend a product you use and like. Blogging builds your credibility, not your income (not directly, not for a while).
In 2010, 294 billion emails were sent per day for a total of 90 trillion in the full year. 1.9 billion users sent an email during 2010. The average business user in a 1,000 user organisation receives 110 emails per day (of which 13 are spam) and sends 36 emails. (source Radicati Group Email Statistics Report 2010)
How do you ensure that your email gets acted upon?
When you send to friends and have regular correspondance they will act because they know your name. When you send to someone who may not know your name what must you do to break out of the forest of spam?
He outline 4 ways to fail to engage the reader when you ask for some help via email:
Fail to indicate the social connection between sender and reader – where did you meet? who put you in contact?
Fail to understand the readers perspective – what context (background information) does the reader need to take a decision/act upon the email?
Fail to explain why the reader was specifically selected as a source of potential help.
Fail to show that sender has already made some effort to understand the domain before asking for help.
I would add two further failures that I see in email requests
Fail to keep it short. Many emails are much too long – the sender has no edit process before sending the “draft” email. I was referred to a nice email policy called three.sentenc.es by a recent blog post from Mark Suster. The requirement to write your email in 3 sentences forces you to be concise.
Fail to clarify exactly what is wanted: No effort to clarify what you are asking for. “Help” is too vague. I expand on this below.
How to clarify your communication objective:
In my classes on communication at IESE I start by making every student define their objective prior to starting to prepare any communication. This might sound too basic to be important, but I can guarantee that more failure in communication occurs because the requester really has not clarified what they want and thought about whether it is realistic to expect.
Finish this sentence: “When the reader has finished reading this email he will _________________”
The sentence must be completed with an active verb. “meet on thursday”, “phone me immediately”, “vote for me”, “visit my web site” are all active. “understand more about the situation” is not active. Most communication fails at this step – lack of clarity of the realistic, do-able, specific next action that will move you closer to your overall objective.
Over to you
I hope your emails don’t risk hanging out with the spams in the inboxes of the world.
Any other thoughts on getting your emails read and acted-upon?
Self-actualization: high levels of personal expression. Blog. Tell the world what you think. Be heard (I think the important aspect is feel heard. Do you feel heard? Who cares when you speak? Is that because you speak rubbish or because you haven’t earnt permission to be heard?)
Impact on communities we serve: Get out of “I” and into “We”.
Pursue a higher calling: Make money, but make it to build something important. What would you build if you had unlimited funds? How can you start building it with the limited funds you have now?
Ted offers a couple of actions that can help enrich life:
Embrace reckonings: Learn from the crap that happens to you.
Envision via life lists: Dream and make lists. If you don’t ask you don’t get. Same with Santa, same with life. Law of attraction stuff.
Human file server: Share opportunities with the people you care about. Look for ways to help them succeed.
High levels of personal expression: Blog every day. Be heard. Do art. Sing.
Empathy: Learn to listen.
Get out of “I” and into “we”: Stop asking “what is in it for me?” and at least move to “what is in it for us?”… even better might be “what does [important person in my life] need most from me right now?”
Pursue a higher calling: Make money. Use it to build cathedrals, not bank accounts.
I am lucky to be in Dublin with my family for Christmas this year. A lot of people have been affected by the severe weather in northern Europe and have not been able to be where they planned to be today. I hope you enjoy your Christmas wherever you happen to be. All the best from a well fed, couple of wine glasses and sitting by the fire Conor with my macbook while the kids play games for kids.
“Writing is among the greatest inventions in human history, perhaps the greatest invention, since it made history possible. Yet it is a skill most writers take for granted. As adults we seldom stop to think about the mental-cum-physical process that turns our thoughts into symbols on a piece of paper.” Andrew Robinson, The Story of Writing.
If you want to improve your intelligence, write stuff down. Full stop. Write stuff down, and 6 months from now you have the accumulated intelligence of 6 months of notes, ideas, quotes.
More valuable perhaps than increased intelligence is the power of writing to reduce my feelings of stress or overwhelm when I confront uncertain or challenging decisions.
Reflective writing gives me three benefits
Writing slows down time (Mindfulness)
Writing orders my thought (practice improves clear thinking)
Writing allows perspective (separation of subject and object, separation of reason and emotion)
Habits and Rituals to keep writing as a habit
In order to develop a habit of reflective writing I would suggest you start with 5 to 10 minute sessions where you dedicate full attention. Set a timer and remove all sources of interruption. Close the door, disconnect internet, put mobile on silent.
I use a pen and paper. Others use computer. Whatever you do, the key to getting the benefits is to separate the creative and edit processes. Reflective writing is about capturing the flow of consciousness as you reflect on the decision, on an error, on a problematic relationship, on how to achieve a certain outcome – and not letting your inner editor get into the process until you have a draft of the ideas down on paper.
There are times when I have to tell my brain “I will keep writing until I have 500 words on this page and if I have to write the word ‘the’ 500 times then that is what I will do”. Inspiration comes when I tell my procrastination-oriented lizard brain that I am going to go on writing until I reach my goal.
Action plans – what are you going to do? what series of steps take you closer to your goal? how to engage the people whose support you need?
What other tools, questions, methods do you have for using writing as a tool for reflection? Do you write regularly? Why? or Why not?
I will finish with Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living”. He was wise. Although I might add that the over-examined life is a poor alternative – best to experience life than to think about experiencing life. Reflection on experience is not a complete replacement for fully living today.