My hope is that this post will help you reach your own goals in 2020. I attained several long-term professional goals in 2019 and I’d like to share the key practices for how I did that to help you along your way. We’ll return to Cloud, Security, and DevOps topics in the New Year.
I attribute much of my success in 2019 to the practices of:
- writing to develop my thoughts
- learning to focus
Here’s how it works…
Thinking through Writing
I wrote a lot in 2019, publishing three major bodies of work:
- Book: Docker in Action, 2ed (300 pages)
- Research: Application Secret Delivery and Audit Practices (+15 pages, 5,600 words)
- Blog: No Drama DevOps (+105 posts, ~750 words per post)
There were also many private documents describing designs, strategies, and implementations for clients.
And I feel like the clarity and value of this work is higher than it’s ever been.
This practice of writing resulted in a couple major changes:
First, I now use writing as a primary mechanism to develop my thoughts on a subject.
This is a big change from having conclusions set in some other context like a classroom or team discussion and then sitting down to “write the report.” Or the situation many people face where there are no conclusions set at all — just a hand-wavy slide deck or ephemeral conversation in group chat.
Developing your thoughts and a clear position in a written form that you are comfortable with people reading and using as the basis of a discussion is a terrific quality bar for those thoughts. It’s generally much higher than the aforementioned examples.
You will also quickly discover that the written form contains not “everything you know,” but more along the lines of “just what readers need to know” for that discussion or decision. And in these moments you will feel your own expertise growing.
Independent consultants run a significant risk of skill and expertise atrophy, depending on their speciality and business model. I think Architects and Directors in technical organizations run this same risk as they get farther from “doing,” though it’s easier to coast inside a large organization until there’s some sort of organization or market change.
Writing and publishing material that other people choose to read and learn from mitigates that risk by strengthening your expertise and projecting it throughout your organization and network.
Second, writing is now a healthy habit for my professional skills and business.
Since writing is a primary mechanism for developing my thoughts, it’s critical that I do it regularly. In my case, I think and write daily for 1.5-2 hours. I know that may sound like an unimaginable luxury or incomprehensible use of time.
But you know what? I’m a knowledge worker, and I bet you are too. Managers of knowledge workers, doubly so.
Thinking and producing knowledge is part of our job. Maybe even our “one job.”
Is your team working on the right problems? Investing in the right solutions? I’m not only referring to the stuff your team got budget for based on historical spend. I’m talking about the things your business needs to succeed 3, 5, or 10 years from now and the plan to get there. Who’s thinking about that?
Here’s an idea: take 30 minutes to review your work calendar and identify the time when you:
- develop knowledge with strategic value for yourself and your organization
- wasted effort on low value activities you can’t remember or no one would have missed if they hadn’t been done
My bet is there are several things on your calendar and many not on your calendar that you can stop doing in order to make room for critical thinking and knowledge development, probably at least one hour per day.
That time can be reallocated to activities like thinking, writing, and getting feedback on those thoughts using:
- a weekly memo to your organization or team describing why and how things work now and will be in the future
- a series of articles for a Guild that challenge and advance the state of the art in your organization
- a history and prospective future of your organization shared with new hires
- an exploration of ideas that could make your product 10x better, shared monthly
You are more than a tactical execution machine. You can do this strategic, high-value work ‘Bird by Bird’ (Anne Lamott).
Of course, all this critical thinking, coherent thought formation, writing, editing, and publishing takes time. Once you manage to claw back some time from the clutches of the modern collaborative/distracted workday, you’ll want to use it wisely.
This year I really learned how to focus and extract much more value out of the time I have available. Several large commitments motivated me to do this: the book, expertise development (research and blog), client projects, and my own product development.
While product development is mentioned last, the past two years confirmed this is where my real professional passion lies. In order to develop product, I needed to get the other work done.
I listened to Cal Newton’s Deep Work, “Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” in late October. Deep Work helped me transform better-than-average work habits into something I feel is a significant, sustainable, and healthy competitive advantage.
These practices eliminate distractions, structure my day for success, and focus on the work I intend to do — not what the distraction machine or attention economy wants.
Here are short descriptions of those practices in my recommended order of adoption:
No Social Media
The first practice I adopted was reducing then eliminating time and mental energy spent on social media platforms. It’s well known that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are addiction machines that sell your attention to the highest bidder. Twitter was distracting me a couple of hours per day when I took this step.
Two ‘surprising’ things happened when I reduced the Twitter app timer limit to 30 then 5 minutes:
- I didn’t miss it
- My stress level dropped and mood improved significantly
The only real trick was retraining myself to fill time waiting in line with other activities such as thinking about problems I am working on, quiet observation, or nothing at all (gasp).
Scheduled Work Day
The second practice I adopted was scheduling my day to focus on the work to be done. I have an electronic Calendar, but I perform this practice of planning and personal expectations management with paper and pen in my notebook each morning.
First, I mark the hours of the work day on the page with each hour getting two lines. Next, I review my electronic calendar to see what meetings I have committed to today and block those off on my written calendar. Then, I allocate segments of time to work in half-hour blocks.
The snapshot of the day above is busy and hectic for me. There were five small planned blocks of thirty minutes, plus an unplanned analysis activity that surfaced in the morning that I handled at lunch. Usually my day is not this fractured. Mondays are my biggest challenge and I’m still smoothing them out.
Importantly, I have reserved 1.5 hours for writing NoDrama DevOps and 2.5 hours for k9 product development. Even on a ‘hectic’ day, I reserved 4 hours of deep work and those checkmarks show that I got it. Some people don’t have the ‘luxury’ of that much uninterrupted time in a week.
Prioritize the Important
The third key Deep Work practice I adopted is to prioritize important work towards the beginning of the day. It’s only possible to work at peak levels sustainably for 3-4 hours per day. So, I pack writing, product management, product development, and planning into the morning. The most creative and intense work of the day is usually done by the time I go to lunch.
I schedule collaborative activities into the afternoon. Notably, this includes Standup Meetings whose three questions are just as answerable and relevant mid-day as they are first thing in the morning. I find Planning, Review, and Retrospective meetings work as well or better in the afternoon, especially considering how people have time to think and prepare for them that day.
And after nearly 20 years, I have finally refashioned my continuous email checking (distraction) habit into a daily schedule of:
- a quick check for urgent issues in the morning
- up to a 15 minute session before lunch
- a quick check for urgent issues ten minutes before finishing work
And the final daily practice is the execution of a ‘shutdown routine’ each day that prepares my work for the next day and my mind for the evening’s activities.
At 15 minutes to 5, I start getting my work to a good stopping point, check my email for urgent issues, then I say this mantra out loud to recognize myself for the day’s efforts and combat my perfectionist, always on tendencies:
"That's good for today."
I hope that helps and I wish you the best in 2020.
p.s. Philip Morgan’s Expertise Incubator program and my cohort guided and encouraged me down this path. I am very grateful for that help. If you are an independent consultant or contractor looking to level up, I highly recommend investigating TEI to see if it’s right for you.
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