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Weekly 3: Fail to succeed

Summary: Avoid desert islands. Make a sandwich. Identify “single points of failure.” (~6 min read)

Idea Journal Weekly 3

June 3 · Issue #37 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Avoid desert islands. Make a sandwich. Identify “single points of failure.” (~6 min read)

#1. Increase the value of your time.
Author and former management consultant Richard Koch writes in his book The 80/20 Principle that the fastest way to increase your effectiveness is to change how you think about time.
For Koch, when you apply the 80/20 principle to how you spend your time, you’ll find that a relatively small portion of your time is responsible for your most significant achievements.
The stark implication of this observation is that most of what you do is low-value.
To be more effective, Koch recommends identifying these low-value activities, what he calls “achievement desert islands,” and doing your best to eliminate them.
Ask yourself: What are the 10 lowest value and least productive uses of your time? What do they have in common?
Here are some examples of low-value uses of time based on Koch’s own experience and research:
  • Things that are always interrupted
  • Things few other people are interested in
  • Things that have always been done a certain way
  • Things you’re not especially good at doing
  • Things that have a predictable cycle
  • Things that have already taken twice as long as you originally expected
And the less time you spend on low-value activities, the more time you have for high-value ones.
To help you uncover your high-value uses of time, Koch offers several suggestions:
  • Things you have always wanted to do
  • Things for which the time is now or never
  • Things that take advantage of your creativity
  • Things other people tell you can’t be done
  • Things people have done successfully in a different field
  • Innovative approaches that promise to cut the time required or multiply the quality of results
Note: We wrote about another one of Richard Koch’s ideas, how to build successful professional relationships, in a previous issue.
#2. Take your mistakes seriously, but not personally.
Daniel Coyle writes in The Little Book of Talent that most of us are allergic to mistakes. When we make one, our instinct is to look away and pretend it didn’t happen. 
But that’s a problem because mistakes are our “guideposts for improvement.” 
Brain-scan studies show that right after we make a mistake, there’s a “vital instant,” a fraction of a second when we have 2 choices: we can look hard at the mistake, or we can ignore it.
Effective practice is about finding and fixing mistakes, and one way to help make sure that you don’t repeat a mistake in the future is what Coyle calls the “sandwich technique.”
Here’s how to use it in 3 steps:
  1. Make the correct move
  2. Make the incorrect move
  3. Make the correct move again
The goal is to reinforce the correct move, but also to put a spotlight on the mistake, so that you can prevent it “from slipping past undetected and becoming wired into your circuitry.”
Note: We wrote about a related concept, Josh Kaufman’s idea of thinking in opposites while learning a new skill, in a previous issue.
#3. Watch out for failures that have leverage.
As author and investor Morgan Housel writes in a Collaborative Fund blog post, a good rule of thumb is that everything will eventually break.
And if you have a system in which a lot depends on just one element, what he calls a single point of failure, then “you’re counting the days to catastrophe.”
Housel points out that there are some who do a good job of avoiding single points of failure: “Virtually every critical system on airplanes has backups, and the backups often have backups.”
In business, the biggest and most obvious single points of failure are debt and reputation.
But you also need to be aware of the less obvious ones. For example, when only one person in a company knows the password to some critical program, or is the only point of contact for a key vendor.
Here’s the trick to avoiding single points of failure: “Find them preemptively, in a controlled way.”
One way to do this is a practice Housel and his colleagues used at his former company, the Motley Fool: each month, an employee’s name was drawn out of a hat, and the winner had to take 10 days off without any work communication.
Housel admits they did this partly to ensure that people used their vacation days, but also to test for single points of failure.
“You only know how reliant you are on a single employee when that person leaves unexpectedly, with no communication.”
Note: We wrote about a similar idea, Neil Postman’s suggestion that teachers would be more effective by becoming experts in stupidity, in a previous issue.
Quote of the Week
“Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation – the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
- Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald in his essay The Crack-Up
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