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: 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!

Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

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

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

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.

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.

You have to prioritize!


If you want to have the most impact you have to prioritize! But how? Based on what criteria?

Do a little of everything? Pick what’s top of your list and work your way down? Do whatever comes to mind and grabs your interest at the moment? Don’t know, so rather stall and don’t do anything at all?

Well, the above approaches don’t seem like great strategies, so let’s take a more structured approach instead.

At Amazon there are limitless opportunities – always – and as a result, we constantly need to prioritize and make trade-offs. Actually, when candidates ask me in interviews what the hardest part of working at Amazon is, I tell them “it’s to decide what not to do”.

There is often quite some ambiguity on how one should make such decisions. I see this across individuals and organizations, way more often than I would have expected. Most people have a good grasp of how they should prioritize, but then they mix and muddy things as they get into the details.

Prioritization is about discipline – both in thinking, as well as in execution.

The operational discipline is something you need to develop for yourself. The mental model is easier to share though. Here is a prioritization framework that works in most cases.

How to prioritize

  1. P0: Things that HAVE to be done to support a strategic goal or prevent a strategic risk. Those are typically set top-down as company or organizational goals. If things MUST be done to support those organizational priorities, they need to be treated as non-negotiable (P0s). The important thing though is that this only applies to blockers (!) for such goals; it doesn’t include all of the nice-to-have things one could do for that space. Nice to have work must stand on its own cost-benefit analysis. It’s not a P0 if it’s not a blocker without a feasible workaround!
  2. P1-3: Things that provide the highest ROI (return of investment) / best cost-benefit ratio in sorted order. Everything else you do need to be evaluated under the criteria of ‘most bang for the buck’. Don’t spend energy on something that will be useful in the future (hopefully), but not just yet. If it will yield a higher return than what you’re doing right now, stop doing what you do and switch over; if it doesn’t, then double down and finish what you started. Sort the things that you need to do by ROI, nothing else.
  3. Exceptions from the rule. There are some reasons why you might have to invest in some projects with lower ROI. The clearest is if you hit a scaling limit by putting more people on a problem. If adding more people to a project doesn’t scale your delivery pace (close to) linearly, you should deploy them somewhere else. Similarly, if you need to make investments to lower your operational cost or substantially increase future delivery speed (e.g. re-architecture), you need to prioritize those accordingly. However, I might argue that those effects can and should also be quantified and expressed in an ROI decision. The other reason to keep some capacity for work that is not ROI-prioritized is to diversify your opportunities and/or make room for experiments to explore new areas. Be very conscious though, as to how much time and energy you want to devote to such activities.

Pitfalls to avoid

Don’t mix criteria. If you make ROI decisions, make ROI decisions. Don’t mix ROI and opportunity or something else.

If you go to a supermarket and shop for oranges, all other things equal, you will pick the ones at the lowest price. You will not pick a bunch of the lowest priced ones and another bunch of the expensive ones, just because they are there. ROI is your metric, stick to it. Opportunity only tells you that you can buy oranges, it doesn’t tell you that the price is right.

Side note: ROI doesn’t need to mean dollars – it means the impact (return) of your resources (investment) on the metric you care about most (e.g. cost, speed, quality, precision, satisfaction).

Don’t take previous decisions as gospel. Don’t block yourself by perceived constraints or previous decisions. As you get more data and understanding, challenge previous assumptions! For example, a goal is not a value in itself, it might have been set based on an incomplete understanding of the total opportunity. As you understand the opportunity space better, re-examine previous goals – if they no longer express the most important thing to do, make a pitch to change the goal!

Elephants get chained when they are young and too weak to break those chains. They learn that chains define their limits. As they get older, they don’t even try to break those chains anymore, even though they easily could. Don’t be chained by previous assumptions, re-evaluate what you know and question what you believe as you learn more!

Invest the intellectual energy to set strong and data-driven priorities. Exercise the operational discipline to focus on those goals without distraction. Nurture the curiosity, flexibility, and courage to revisit those decisions and underlying data to verify that you are still pursuing the right goals.


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:


Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

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

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle


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.

How do you shine a light on the moon?


How do you shine a light on the moon?

Well, it’s actually pretty easy: you use a laser, not a flashlight.

So what is so special about a laser? It’s really just two things: focus and coherence.

I. Focus (Spatial coherence)

A flashlight creates light in one point (the lightbulb) and then lets it travel out in a more or less focused way. There is a lot of energy produced, but it spreads out in multiple angles, with a quickly diminishing impact. A laser bounces light back and forth in one beam between two mirrors before part of it escapes in a single beam and travels outward.

Lasers are focused (spatial coherence). They point in one direction, and one direction only. As a result, their light travels far without losing intensity.

Focus maintains energy and signal, ensuring that it will travel far without being watered down. That is just as true for our strategies, stories, business, and life. All too often people are all over the place. They overload stories (at Amazon we use PR FAQs to develop, crystallize and communicate big new ideas), have unclear and disconnected goals (for example in annual planning, or OP1 in Amazon speak), jump around adjacent problems (e.g. project updates), or are jack-of-all-trades and master of none (often seen in personal priority setting and time management).

We need to constantly push ourselves to gain and maintain focus!

When you write a PR FAQ (or call it strategy proposal), what is the one thing you want to achieve? Make that your story and stick to it. If you had to pick one thing, what would it be? What is most impactful? If you need to land only one thing with me (and I won’t remember more anyway), what’s that one thing? Put everything else in the FAQ (i.e. the appendices for your proposal).

That focus needs to come from you. Don’t collect a bunch of ideas, and present them (regardless of whether it’s just bullet points or a polished narrative) to see what sticks with the audience. ‘Throwing spaghetti on the wall’ only makes a mess that you will need to clean up afterward. You need to do the hard work of figuring out what matters most and go through the painful process of letting go of all the other cool stuff (there will be another PR FAQ for those).

The same thought model applies to all other plans, strategies, and written updates that we produce. Spend the time to really understand what matters. Then figure out all aspects and implications of that one thing, and write it down in a flow that allows others to follow your thinking.

The same is true for your career. You can do many things every day, and our space certainly allows you to be busy and tactical all day long. The problem is that busy and tactical doesn’t get you very far in the long run (nor does it get your team anywhere). The flashlight shines brightly a few feet away, but it won’t travel to the moon.

Take your time, sit back and think where you want to go. Then make a list of the few (!) things that you need to be really good at and deliver, to get there. Focus on them and deliver excellence. I hate to break it, but people rarely get rewarded for the effort. They do get prompted for impact.

If you’re versatile, you will be the go-to person to fix issues and plug holes. If you focus on your core areas, you will be looked upon to lead others.

The hard work is to keep that focus. Make time for constant check-ins and reflections. When tactical escalations distract you, take a pause, reflect, and come back to your priorities.

Don’t compromise strategy work for tactical work. It’s a true temptation, as humans always seek instant gratification. Push back against that desire. A good framework for that thinking is the 4-block model of urgent vs important. Make sure you spend the majority of your time in the top two quadrants. Avoid the bottom two. Spend time on the important things that move you and your goals forward!


4 boxes


II. Coherence (Compounding)

The second important quality of a laser is temporal coherence. The waves are aligned in resonance, with the peak of every wave overlaying and sitting on top of the peaks of other waves. It’s the perfect compounding effect. Without that compounding effect, a laser would be nothing else than a very flimsy flashlight, that won’t even be able to illuminate something a foot away.

You want to use the same compounding effect in your stories, projects, career, and life.

When you tell a story, don’t jump around. Once you have identified the key point that you want to convey, build upon it. Develop it further through your PR FAQ, OP1, or project update. Don’t jump around to other adjacent things. Stay on the topic until you’re done, then stop.

A good way of thinking about this is the inverted journalistic pyramid. Start with your punch line, then as you go further, add additional details. Don’t jump around. The story should not change, if the reader goes further down in your text, it only becomes more detailed and colorful. If someone only reads the first paragraph, they should understand the core. As they read further down, their understanding should deepen, but not change. If their understanding changes, and the story morphs and shape-shifts in their mind, then you didn’t do a good job in understanding, developing and focusing on the key point.



Likewise, in your career, make sure the activities you’re driving are aligned with your goals. Make sure you are consistent with them! Switching around all the time will not let you gain real momentum anywhere. Focus, deliver, deliver more, build upon it, until you can proclaim victory. Small things add up, and the effect of compounding investments is staggering. It’s doesn’t need to be much that you add every time, but it needs to be consistent.

It’s easy to start a lot of things, and not follow through with them – I only need to look at the list of PR FAQs that we ‘wanted’ to write in our team but never did, or the plethora of action items we decide upon in brainstorming meetings and offsites, but hardly ever followed through with. Once you identified a goal, keep pushing.

Don’t kick off a lot of things, and then abandon them. Start a few that matter, and follow-through to the end. Go a few steps further every week, every day. Layer wave peak on top of wave peak. Gain momentum and build upon it. Make it an (Amazon) flywheel that you are constantly pushing!

Be a laser, not a flashlight. You CAN shine to the moon (and back).

#focus #goals #career #success



Did you like this article? Want to read more?

If you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:

Put on your own oxygen mask first - book cover

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

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle


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.