How we decide on where to put our resources

A while back, I was asked in a 1:1 how one should decide where to put resources and effort.

There’s a pretty simple and basic framework to making those decisions, and it all comes down to ROI (Return on Investment): getting the most value out of the resources you are able to invest. This applies to decisions large and small: what product to purchase, what project to prioritize, how to plan your time.

While the framework is simple, it’s worth reminding us of it and bringing it top of mind for our daily decisions. Some of us are instinctively (or through years of training) following that model; others might consider putting a post-it note on their desk as a reminder.

ROI: the balance of Opportunity and Cost

  • Opportunity – The first decision criteria is the size of the Opportunity. If we do this project, if we buy this SW, what will we gain from it? What metrics will it change, and by how much? What is the impact on our overall operational cost? It comes down to quantifying the “Why” – and as you know, I am a big fan of always, always starting with the “Why”. Why do we do this, and what will we get out of it? How does that compare to other things we could do with our time? Steve Balmer used to say: “Show me the money!”
  • Cost – This one is easy: what does it cost to do the project? This includes headcount, fees, and future maintenance. We got all excited about the new opportunities and operational savings a solution will provide us, but what’s the flipside? What is the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) of implementing this new solution now and in the future?

Having Opportunity and Cost gives you the ROI. As a first cut, you should rank all projects by their ROI – Which one gives you the most bang for the buck? Where should you invest limited resources?

Criteria that might override the ROI decision

  • Feasibility (and timing) – Feasibility is the criteria that should be checked first: do we have the prerequisites to even do this project or implement the new SW? Do we have the resources, or are they booked in other efforts? Is now the right time for this, given the other priorities for the organization, or should this be planned for a different time?
  • Risk tolerance – Of course, there is also a different category of projects that you just have to do, and this is where Risk comes in. Some work is required for compliance (e.g., new regulations) or minimizing threat vectors (e.g., increased security measures). In these cases, risk tolerance becomes an additional input to the ROI equation. What’s the cost of exposure, and how likely is it? How much risk are we willing to tolerate for a better ROI in this project or for putting our resources into higher-ROI projects? How much are we willing to forgo high-ROI projects in order to avoid risk exposure. Unfortunately, this category isn’t a hard science and usually requires informed judgment calls.
  • Follow-through – The last important criteria to consider are follow-through and sunk cost. It’s easy to chase the new shiny object. However, if you do that before you finish a project that you already started, you are on the path to wasting a lot of resources and frustrating a lot of people. Switching priorities can be necessary in (very few) cases, but it usually comes at a high cost. Whenever possible, follow through and finish what you have started – don’t waste effort by frequently switching priorities. The big exception to that rule is when you learn that your initial assumptions were incorrect. For example, the benefit might not be as high as anticipated, feasibility might have turned out to be questionable, or cost might be skyrocketing. In those cases, you need to reassess the whole project ROI. As for investing, don’t cling to a losing stock only because you already have sent a lot of money on it.

While ROI is a fairly simple financial calculation, the criteria in this bucket are less quantifiable. In most cases, it comes down to looking at all the facts you can collect and making an informed decision and judgment call.

As you do so, make sure to document the man decision criteria for that judgment call so that you know to revisit your decision if any of those criteria should change further down the road.


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Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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Focus on the opportunity, not the challenges

I was going to write about asking “Why not” instead of “Why” – which is advice I’m hearing often – but then I decided differently. While well-intentioned, I think that advice might drive the wrong behavior if it’s heard and understood the wrong way.

In many meetings, we tend to focus our time on why things won’t work, why they are hard, and why we cannot do them right now. We are guessing what might (!) hold us back or make things complicated.

Well, anything that is worth doing and any problem worth being solved tends to be hard and complicated. The easy stuff had already been done a long time ago.

Instead of looking at the challenges, we need to look at the opportunities: what do we gain, what can we enable if we solve this problem? Is it a worthwhile endeavor? How does this rank against the other things we could be doing with our time and energy?

Once decided, we need to stop thinking about why it’s hard and instead start focusing on how we CAN do it. For every problem, there is a solution. It might not be easy, it might not be quick, but there is a way to get it done. Dwelling in the challenges will only discourage us and waste both time and energy.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for ignoring challenges and problems to be solved. I’m instead saying that those problems need to be identified, acknowledged, written down, and then tracked to resolution. That is the productive approach to deal with challenges. Reiterating, discussing, and dwelling on them without concrete action is the unproductive approach. Once you identified a problem, you write it down, find a time and owner and move on.

Once we decided that something is important, we must only be concerned about how we can get it done and finding a realistic approach, plan, and timeframe. We must not waste our time discussing why it’s hard, and we cannot waste our resources looking for easier projects that we can tackle instead. The important stuff tends to be hard.

Back to the “Why not” advice that I poo-pooed earlier – It’s actually well-intended as it challenges us to instead of asking “why do we need to do this” rather get in the mindset of thinking, “yes, why in the hell would we not do this”. Always starting with the “Why” and assuming that there is value in a new project, initiative, or change is a good thing. Dwelling in reasons not to do something that is useful is wasted energy.

Just for the fun of it, here’s a list of a few things that were impossibly hard at some time: personal computers for everyone, finding stuff on the internet, a smartphone for everyone, streaming the movies you like to watch, getting an online order delivered the next day, electric cars, GPS for everyone, online banking,… – well you get the idea. All of those were solved by people who chose to focus on how to overcome hard problems instead of discussing why they are hard to solve.

Since we’re talking about starting with the “Why”, here’s a recommendation for one of my favorite business books:

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
Simon Sinek
ISBN-10: 9781591846444

Everything always starts with the “Why”. If you know your “Why”, you know your purpose and motivation. If you know the “Why”, it will be easy for you to enlist others for your cause.




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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Optimize your impact, not your hours

I was recently asked: “How do you optimize your productivity hours?

My answer was clearly not what the person had expected: “You don’t. You optimize your impact!

When we think about productivity, we often look at the wrong metric: the hours spent and the effort taken, not the output and impact of what we did. However, how busy we felt or how hard it was, doesn’t matter with regards to our productivity. We can be very busy, work extremely hard, and still not achieve anything.

Therefore, “hours” is the wrong metric. It’s not about the hours we spend and the effort we put in – it’s about the output, deliverables, and impact we achieve through our work. So the real question is: “How do we maximize the output and impact we have?

The answer is to put our energy to its best use, invest our time where it matters most, and keep ourselves healthy and balanced so that we can operate at peak performance for those deliberately selected areas.

Three simple shifts in your mindset will get you there:

Focus on the things that matter most

Invest your time where you get the most bang for the buck. Don’t spend all your time in “busy work” – it’s easy to fall into that trap as we feel so accomplished if we were busy with lots of stuff all day.

Instead, we need to develop the discipline to look hard at the impact of our actions and have the courage to say “No” if some work and priorities don’t make sense.

Of course, we also need to communicate early, proactively, and clearly to our stakeholders if we decided to deprioritize a given task. No surprises!

Remove distractions

Multitasking doesn’t work – period. As endless studies have shown, multitasking doesn’t work for anything that requires our conscious focus on two things at a time. You can brush your teeth and reminisce about your day – however, you cannot solve a logical problem and check your email simultaneously. The switching cost to get back on task after an interruption (multitasking) is surprisingly high – often up to 20 mins.

Knowing that every distraction can cost you up to 20 mins of your focused time, you need to eliminate all distractions. Switch off notifications, don’t have email counters on your phone, kill all notification sounds or pop-ups – better even, close all apps aside from the one you need for your current task and put your phone on mute. Don’t even listen to music; our brain immediately zeros in on the lyrics – if we like it or not (white noise is ok).

Allow your brain to get into “the zone”, find your “flow” and be sharp, focused, and effective. When you’re done, you can leave “the zone” and follow distractions for a little while.

Protect your recovery times

The third piece of advice actually does go towards optimizing your productivity hours (although that’s not my primary purpose): ensure that you can be at your A-game when you’re on task.

You cannot be the best version of yourself if you worked through the night or weekend and come into the office already exhausted in the morning. Take your breaks, take time to recharge, don’t push beyond the point where you are focused and effective. You need to recharge, you need to balance, you need to come back the next day with your A-game.  

Observe yourself and your focus and notice the point where you aren’t productive anymore. I learned that it is better to call it a day then, rather than trying to push through a little more – most times, your work will get sloppy and faulty when you get tired, and you will spend more time cleaning up the mess you created than if you had just waited for the next day. Trust me, I’ve been there many times.




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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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Be intentional!

Too much on your plate? Feeling busy and overwhelmed? Getting nowhere fast?

It might be a good time to pause, take a deep breath, rethink what’s a top priority and what isn’t. It might be a good time to become more intentional about how you spend your time and energy and what you pay attention to.

It’s all too easy to add stuff to your plate (or get it added by someone else). We start to get busy, and the busier we get, the more we focus on ‘getting stuff done’, rather than thinking about what outcomes we want to achieve and how we can best get there. The more we get into that ‘busyness’, the less time we have to stop, pause, think, and the more ‘normal’ the tactical busyness feels. Ever noticed when you come back from a vacation and you are so much more organized and focused, only to fall back to seemingly random busy-work after a week or two? That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

Heck, it might even give us comfort and validation to ‘be busy’. However, busyness is not the same as impact. Busyness is not the same as achievement. Busyness is not the same as providing value. It’s just busyness, nothing else. If you want to make a change, if you want to make ’a dent in the universe’ as the silicon valley types like to say, you need to be intentional about where and how you invest yourself. Busyness is not a value. It’s a cost. Outcome and impact are the values.

Don’t be busy, be impactful!

So how do you get more intentional? Start with gaining clarity on what outcomes you want to achieve and what actions will be most impactful to get there. Then invest your time intentionally in those outcomes and actions. Don’t just go with the flow.

Here are some examples:

Meetings – Decide if a meeting provides value to what you want to achieve and if you can provide value to the meeting and group. Then go or don’t go. If you go, you must make it worth your time and everyone else’s time. Don’t just hang around in the meeting. Don’t multi-task – it doesn’t work anyway. Turn your webcam on for virtual meetings. Be there and engage. If you don’t feel the meeting is important to you, better invest your time in something else and avoid dragging down the energy of the whole group.

Tasks and emails – When you go through tasks and emails, force yourself to be focused. Limit the time you have available for those tasks. You will see that allotting a limited amount of time to getting something done will make you more focused, more efficient, and happier. It will also avoid that you keep working on something beyond the point of diminishing returns (remember the 80:20 rule). Give yourself a challenging time limit, and then force yourself to get all planned work done in the allocated time. Don’t allow any distractions – single-task!

Working after hours – Sometimes we need to get something done in time for a deadline, and work will bleed into the evening or weekend. Those should be the very rare exceptions, though. Be aware of and intentional about those exceptions. Know why you make them if you decide to make them. Don’t let working in the evening become a habit just because you did it the previous evening. It’s easy to get sucked into bad habits if you don’t observe closely what you’re doing. Today there’s a lot of excitement about being always connected, about moving in and out of work and private times, and blended models. I may be old-school, but I don’t believe in that. If you take your work home and don’t set boundaries, you disservice yourself and your loved ones. Be fully at work when you’re at work, and forget all about work when you’re not!

Downtime – This is so critical for our balanced well-being! Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Be conscious and intentional about taking downtimes. Plan them, appreciate them, and protect them. Don’t feel bad for not doing anything (‘do nothing days’ are a real thing). However, don’t waste your downtimes either. Don’t get lost in browsing the web or playing video games. There is a huge difference between planned downtime, or me-time, and mindless procrastination. Don’t get me wrong, if you like videogames, that’s awesome. Enjoy them for the time period that you have decided to spend on them. However, don’t find yourself looking at your clock, wondering where the time has gone, and feeling guilty about it. Being intentional avoids feeling guilty.

Family and friends – Put that smartphone down! Tug away your work problems! Listen, share and engage! Don’t let anything distract you from paying attention to your loved ones during the time you spend with them. It might be annoying at times (yes, let’s be honest, distractions from our kids can be annoying), it might go against your planned task, but you won’t’ regret it in the long run. The number one wish of people in nursing homes is to have spent more time with loved ones. Having gotten more tasks done never comes up in those conversations.

Be intentional about what you do and how you spent your time. You will have more impact, and you will be happier.


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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Put it in a box

I want to talk a little about compartmentalizing today. Beware, this is different from multi-tasking – don’t confuse the two! Compartmentalizing is a survival strategy, multi-tasking is a surefire way to get stressed out and make mistakes.

So what is compartmentalizing? At its simplest, it’s the art and skill of putting things away for the moment, of switching context fully to the topic that’s at hand.

Put it in a box and leave it there until the moment when it’s needed again – then pull it out again and put everything else away.

Executives have mastered that skill – for good a reason – if they hadn’t, they would drown and go mad within a week. You can only be successful in an environment with multiple very different demands if you are able to focus on the one thing at hand and tune everything else out. (It might be different if your job is to review forms at the DMV for 8 hours a day.)

Why is compartmentalization important to us and when could it serve us? Well there are two very clear scenarios:

  • Staying on top of the task at hand – All of us are always getting a lot of small and independent requests and priorties. Our project and tasks lists seem to be ever growing. As we move from project meeting to project meeting, we will only be successful if we can put a mental pause on everything else that is not related to the project at hand. Un-pause as you move to the next meeting. Trying to think about everything at the same time will drive you mad.
  • Keeping your emotions at bay – All of us get into challenging emotional situations. They can be in our personal life, conflicts with peers, or things that we have to do but really hate. We can also be anxious about upcoming events. While those emotions are very valid, it’s not fair to bring them into the interaction with someone else. If a discussion with ‘A’ made me mad, I must put that away when I meet with ‘B’. Fully away.

Compartmentalization is hard. It doesn’t come naturally as we tend to dwell with no end on things that worry us. The good news is that it’s just a skill that can be learned like any other. The first step is to become aware of all the things we ‘carry over’ in our minds as we go from meeting to meeting and interaction to interaction. Then start training yourself to ‘put it in a box’. Visualize a box if that helps you. Write it down on a Post-It and put the Post-It away so that you don’t have to remember it.

Check yourself as you move through your day:

  • Am I  dwelling on the previous meeting and not paying full attention?
  • Am I bringing a negative mood over from the last meeting?
  • Am I able to fully ‘turn off’ and recharge after work?
  • Am I fully present in my current interaction or am I thinking about something else?

If you notice yourself doing anything of the above, make it a point to take a mental pause and put it in a box. You want to be able to bring your best to the topic at hand. You also want to ensure that you are not penalizing the person you are currently working with for something that someone or something else did to your mood.

In my former role, my team of 18 Product managers was serving an engineering organization of ~150 developers, and I was the senior leader for all product related questions. Topics changed 180 degrees every 30mins, back to back all day. Initially, I thought my head would explode, but learning how to compartmentalize saved the day for me. It will make your days much more relaxed and more efficient as well.

As it is the case so many times, the ‘old guys’ had that already figured out a long time ago – they just didn’t have the fancy terminology we like to use today…

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” — Buddha


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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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Create Moments of Zen

Life is busy. Especially these days. We’re still in a pandemic but are already starting to plan for the time when we get out. Due to that, there are still a lot of moving parts. There are still a lot of things that change under our feet (and probably will be for quite a while), and it takes deliberation and effort to keep our balance despite the changes.

However, changes are always opportunities as well, and how we will perceive and utilize changes depends 100% on our state of mind. Do we feel chased day by day, reacting to what’s going on, or are we taking a proactive stance to plan for what matters while also anticipating coming changes and readying our minds for them?

It is often recommended to start meditating to foster that open, attentive, flexible, but calm mindset that lets us recognize and embrace change and challenges as opportunities. I agree that meditation is one great way to clear our minds and get them focused on what matters.

However, there is more that can be done. I like to think about it more broadly as creating moments of Zen in your daily and weekly rhythms. Create predictable and stable islands in a sea of change. Those predictable routines and times for yourself will give you stability and direction. The best time to do that is right at the start of your day before things get busy.

Create moments of Zen, create moments of clarity at the beginning of your day and week.

How you start the day and week sets the tone for the remainder of that period. Have a rough start, and you will have a hard time recovering from it. Be in control when you start, and you have a much higher chance to remain in control.

There are many different ways to get off to a good start. You need to find what works best for you and what gives you that moment of Zen and clarity of mind for a terrific start into the day. Here are some ideas I heard from co-workers over the years:

Opening the day with a calm mind

  • Get up early and tidy up your house (no, that’s not me)
  • Get up early and tidy up your inbox and calendar
  • Set your priorities for the day or week; don’t pick more than three – only one is even better
  • Go for a walk or workout
  • Sit in front of the fireplace and reflect on the coming day (my current favorite)
  • Start with a meditation or a prayer
  • Have a relaxed breakfast with loved ones

Closing out a day so you won’t worry about it through the night or weekend

  • Shut down your computer and silence your cell phone
  • Go for a run or workout
  • Enjoy nature to get out of the ‘office’ frame of mind
  • Close your day by reflecting on what you’re thankful for, count your blessings
  • Plan out the week ahead on Fridays
  • Get down to inbox zero on Fridays
  • Organize your upcoming meetings for the next day or week and resolve any conflicts that you might worry about
  • Before you go into the weekend, have all open actions either scheduled for a specific time next week or consciously deprioritized

Plan proactively and be in control, don’t react tactically like a leaf in the storm!


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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Meeting effectiveness and efficiency

We all spend a LOT of time in meetings. That time is important and valuable, as meetings help us to discuss topics, get different opinions, resolve issues, and decide on actions. However, those meetings can also waste a lot of time.

So how do we make meetings more effective? Here are some things that I learned over time – 8 quick checks for your next meeting:

  • Shorter is better – Humans have a tendency to always fill the available time (I think it’s a yet undiscovered law of physics). If you have 2 hours for a task, you will need two hours. If you have only 30 mins, you will focus on what’s most important and be done after those 30 mins. Likewise, if you have 1 hour for a meeting, you will fill that time. Think about what the absolute required minimum duration for a meeting is and then schedule for that time. That will force you and everyone else to stay on topic and move forward.
  • Have an agenda! – If you don’t chart out the way, you will not reach your destination. Share a meeting agenda ahead of time to set proper expectations and get the results out of your meeting that you need. In a previous team, we had a rule to not join a meeting if it didn’t have a clear agenda and purpose.
  • Define desired outcomes and manage towards those outcomes – If you don’t say what you need from the meeting, you might be surprised by what you will get. In tandem with the agenda, also define what the desired outcomes are (e.g. “In this meeting we will agree on the proposed project plan and develop a complete list of necessary changes to that plan. After the meeting, execution against that plan will start.”). If you define clearly what you want to achieve, attendees will be more focused on helping you to get there. It will also give you a way to redirect discussions if they get derailed (and they always will).
  • Recognize sidetracks and get back on track – Every meeting goes sideways at some point. Identify discussions that are not critical to the agenda and your desired and stated meeting outcomes, suggest to move them offline, and politely redirect the group back to the actual agenda. Something that can be quickly solved in the room (2 mins or less) is ok; everything else should be dealt with offline.
  • Know who should be there (and who shouldn’t) – It’s easy to invite anyone who could be even remotely interested. That is also very expensive and doesn’t really add to your credibility as a thoughtful leader. Decide who really should be in the meeting to make the desired progress. Send meeting notes to everyone else.
  • Engage people by asking them directly for input – Many people join meetings, make up their own thoughts, but stay quiet. This is particularly pronounced in virtual meetings and the worst for attendees who join only on audio. It’s so easy to multitask, or just hide away. Ask people specifically for their opinions. Ask them by name. This is important if you need a decision, but it is also a critical tool to ensure that more introvert communicators are not drowned out in meetings – their thoughts and opinions are just as important but often harder to get.
  • Drive for decisions – Be sure to get the outcomes you desired from the meeting. Drive for decisions, ask people by name for their sign-off or explicit disagreement. A little tip / dirty trick: how you phrase the question matters. “Are you all ok with this?” leaves ambiguity and wiggle room. You will never know for sure that you have full buy-in or a defendable group decision. “So in summary, the decision of this meeting is X, unless anyone voices any objections now.” removes ambiguity, and forces people to voice any concerns right now. They cannot say “I didn’t know or agree” later. Everyone needs to be clear that now is the time to voice concerns or rest their peace forever. This is not about forcing a specific outcome; it is about eliminating decision avoidance.
  • Write the meeting notes – Everyone will have a slightly different opinion of what was discussed and decided in the meeting. And as time passes by and memory fades, those gaps will just widen. Write down all decisions to have them documented and make them stick. Plus, who writes the meeting notes controls the decisions to a large part. Bonus points if you take the notes in the meeting and share your screen so that everyone sees them and has an opportunity to jump in right away if they disagree.

Inefficient meetings have been one of my pet peeves for a long time (being a true introvert, I hate long meetings without clear purpose and tangible forward progress). Following the above rules can make all your meetings substantially better.


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Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

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Start the new year from a position of control

This week started with a flurry of meetings and requests for all of us. That’s just what you would expect for this time of the year: everyone comes back from vacation and rest with a wealth of new ideas, and a new year is always a natural point for clean-up and changes.

While this is all normal and good, it also bears a risk: humans have such a strong tendency to continue doing what they are doing. Inertia is a powerful force in the Universe. As we all started our first week by reacting to tactical requests and fixing small fires, it’s way too easy to get caught in the hustle of those day to day activities. Being busy is just so easy, and the associated instant gratifications are tempting, to be honest.

It’s easy to be busy, but it takes commitment and energy to be impactful.

Right now, as we are all refreshed and the new year is still to be defined by us, it’s even more important to have your story straight on what matters most.

Take a break from getting all tactical and request-driven, and give yourself the time to reflect on what matters most. Then ensure that you take those priorities into action. Block enough time and energy for those activities. Define checkpoints and review regularly if you are progressing at the right pace against those priorities. Adjust your plan, behavior, and days if you see a gap opening up between what matters and what you’re doing.

The important thing is NOT how busy you are. What’s important is the impact you have. For that, it’s much less important how much you do, but it’s crucial that you do the right things.

I happened to stumble upon an (older) article this morning that is very related and provides excellent ideas on how to stay focused on what matters most: https://hbr.org/2019/05/when-life-gets-busy-focus-on-a-few-key-habits. Happy reading!  😊

Focus on the alligator closest to the boat

“Focus on the alligator closest to the boat.”

We have a ton of things going on, and COVID added many more that were not planned, accounted, or resourced for. New things are coming in almost on a daily basis. This can be scary, even daunting at times, but all of it is important – what each of us does has a tremendous impact on the future of so many people!

Having that said, not everything needs to be done right now, and some things can wait just a few days. Being clear about that and giving yourself the freedom to focus on the one thing that’s most important right now is critical to keep your sanity in times of high pressure. Understand your project priorities, their true (not perceived) criticality, and when they need to be done. Then decide what you need to do right now.

A good mental model for this was given to me by a co-worker a few years ago. He was a manager in an Amazon warehouse. That’s about the craziest it can get: every day is high pressure, and completely unplanned. Equipment breaks, workers get sick, a new deal takes off unexpectedly, shipments come in late – you name it. They don’t even keep their calendar updated because days are unpredictable by default. Everything is ad-hoc and focused on what’s most important right now – well to be clear, there is a lot of strategic planning going on, but day to day operations is influenced by many unpredictable events.

I asked him how he can make progress and stay sane in such an environment, and he told me that it’s actually very easy: “You focus only on the alligator next to the boat.”

Find your alligator that’s next to the boat right now. Keep a mental map of where the others are as some might be approaching while others drift away. Then deal with the one next to the boat!


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Take care of yourself!

We’re going to Yellowstone this weekend!

While that’s clearly not interesting for anyone who reads this post, I wanted to make the broader point that it is critical to take care of ourselves. Always, but even more so in a pandemic!

Taking care of ourselves is not just one specific thing that we need to do – it requires a balanced approach. Here is my personal top 10 list for wellbeing (add your own strategies to it):

  1. Eat well – For the Chinese, nutrition is one of the three sources of life energy and the one that we have the most control over replenishing. A car doesn’t run well on bad gas, and we don’t perform well on unhealthy food. Take your time to eat and eat healthily. There is lots of science out there, and much of it disagrees with each other, so find out what works best for your body.
  2. Stay hydrated – It’s embarrassing, but we only learned this when we moved to the US (being hydrated was not a thing to think about in the German culture). Most of our body consists of water, and without it, we perish pretty quickly. Stay hydrated, stay sharp. The jury is still out as to whether coffee counts for this or not…
  3. Sleep enough – All parents know what sleep deprivation does to our brains. Well, if you have a newborn – bad luck (for a while). However, if you don’t, it’s in your control. Figure out what the right amount of sleep is for you and make sure that you get those hours consistently. Work is so much easier if we go into it awake and alert.
  4. Do sports – And with that, I mean the type where you sweat, not the one where you sit on the couch and watch TV. No matter what your preferred mode of movement is, any movement is better than no movement. Go for a walk, lift weights, take a run around the block, practice Yoga,… –  No matter what it is, make time for doing it regularly. You will feel much more energized and balanced after a good workout.
  5. Take a deep breath, take a pause – Don’t try to power through but rather plan for regular breaks. Work focused for a predetermined stretch of time, and then take a break. Get away from your office desk, grab some water, or walk around the block. There’s lots of research that shows the benefit of regular short breaks between periods of focused and undistracted work.
  6. Do one thing at a time – Speaking of undistracted work, do one thing at a time. For one, it’s proven that humans cannot multitask. In addition to being inefficient, trying to do multiple things at the same time also increases our anxiety levels. Work feels more overwhelming. Do one thing and only one thing. Turn off all distractions (email, notifications, etc.) while you’re focusing on a task. Block time for it.
  7. Take downtime / do nothing time – Six days of work, one day of rest. Whatever your formula is, make sure that ‘do-nothing time’ is part of it. Do-nothing time is a time where you have no goals and no bad feelings if you don’t ‘accomplish’ anything. It’s not “I must read a book”, it’s the absence of having to do anything. Try to just follow the flow, to the point where you’re almost bored. Then enjoy that feeling of space and potential.
  8. Get outside – It’s not too long ago that we climbed down from the trees. We are still deeply connected to nature, and being in nature is a major source of energy, rooting, and balance for all of us. Make time to get out into nature! Whether it’s your backyard, a city park, or a remote wilderness – connect with where we came from.
  9. Make time for things you love – We’re all passionate about our work. But I hope that’s not the only passion that you have. Make time for what gives you energy and drive outside of work. Create some art, read a book, play a game, watch your kids. Whatever it is, don’t let COVID distract you from it.
  10. Nurture relationships – Last not least, don’t hide away from other folks. This is not the time to retreat into your cave. We might have some constraints on physical connections these days, but we have powerful technology at our hands to overcome those constraints. Call your best friends, keep close connections with family and friends. Seek energy and support from others.

Often when we’re under stress, we cut down on all of the above first. That’s wrong, do the opposite! Focus on your wellbeing first, which will boost your effectiveness and make you way more successful at your work tasks as well.