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11 Mar'15

Review: HBR Guide to Getting the Right Work Done

New guide from HBR doesn’t sell you on a new technique, but instead opens with a chapter titled “You can’t get it all done”. The book presents a reader with two main ideas that seem rather obvious. First idea suggests that to get more time for our tasks, we must stop doing things we’re not supposed to. and that unswerving commitment to daily “rituals” forms the foundation of most successful people.

The title of that chapter immediately reminded me of the article published on The Atlantic and titled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. After reading the book, I still think that the article deserves huge attention and respective changes in the society, but start to understand that not just women but all of us will have to make some tough choices at some point in our life.

The book is not written by a single author, but rather includes separate articles on productivity prepared by different experts who wrote books as well published articles in HBR on this topic. I was positively surprised by a variety of topics and the simplicity of the arguments in support of certain habits that authors want to instill into the reader.

Below is a short summary of each section that I would like to keep as a reference for a regular review in future.

Section 1: Introduction

The first chapter, titled “You can’t get it all done”, carries a very important advice for every “lifehacker”: find one solution that works for your organizational challenges and repeat as long as it works well.

Second chapter gives a rule of a thumb for setting goals: if you want to achieve something specific, you should start by setting a specific goal (§1). In order to change bad habits on your way, use “replacement” if-then plans (§9).

Section 2: Priorities

Chapter 4 offers a career advice that can be shortened to this: figure out which part of your work brings the biggest gains and for next 6 month prioritize daily tasks that contribute to those gains (even if it leads to confrontation with a boss).

Chapter 5 recommends to refuse helping others unless:

  • You’re the right person.
  • It is the right time.
  • You have enough information.

Otherwise, as chapter 6 insists, say “no”. Keeping a laser focus on your goals and preparing a polite “no” email template was advised.

Section 3: Time

Chapter 7 offered a method for extreme fire-fighting. Work in a following loop until fire is extinguished:

  • 15 minutes on quick tasks;
  • 35 minutes on a hard task;
  • 10 minutes of rest.

Chapter 8 offered to use rewards to fight procrastination.

I would go for this advice only to build better habits, e.g. go for a walk after finishing a report (actually, that’s what chapters 12 & 14 suggest).

Interesting read: Start the new year with habits and systems, not goals.

Chapter 9 is about long-term projects. Takeaway: no more than 5 of them and start by keeping your expectations low so that you are not afraid.

Chapter 10 gave some hard arguments to fight for your peace of mind. There are 3 things that lower your IQ:

  • Distraction - 10 points
  • Lost night of sleep - 10 points
  • Smoking marijuana - 5 points

Not sure about the factual correctness, but if it’s true, I better use that advice.

Chapter 11 offers a way to be honest with yourself about your own progress: book a 20-minute meeting with yourself once a week. Yes, you heard it right.

I will actually try to reserve some time to review my week’s notes I made in my notebook.

Chapter 12 is all about TODO lists. One thing was funny and ridiculous:

Make […] two lists […] by buckets, one by week.
Bonus: You get the joy of crossing off one task in TWO places.

Chapter 13 gives simple pipeline for classifying tasks:

  • Do those take less than 2 minutes now
  • Schedule other important tasks for later
  • Discard or delegate the rest. If you can’t let go of certain things, put them into Later list.

From the book:

Perhaps, someday, maybe, I’ll do something on that list.

Chapter 14 lists rewards for fun & profit. Review from time to time!

While many people think that rewarding yourself is silly (mainly, because they view it as applying carrot & the stick to themselves), I think we should just call it a habit or, perhaps, a schedule. For example, people don’t skip workdays because a predefined weekend is “silly”. Instead, it’s a normal course of things that we rest after we work.

I started to treat everything important that is a chore as work, while treating important tasks for my personal development that I do with joy as rewards.

Section 4: Delegation

I must note that while I was amused by the monkey allegory used, I couldn’t take the section seriously as I’m not in a position to delegate much now (even though a lot of team members of the projects I participate in will strongly disagree).

Chapter 15 was very memorable because now I know who’s got the monkey. Nice explanation, why (and how) a manager should not take the problems from those he manages.

Chapter 16 is the shortest chapter in the book, it’s just two pages. It gives a table with clear approach to managing subordinates of different level of professionalism. I recalled my internship and my manager who intentionally excercised as little supervision as possible and I think that greatly contributed to my self-organization (while work progress suffered no harm).

Section 5: Rituals

I think this was the most brilliant section and I think it will become the one I’ll revisit most.

From chapter 17 I would like to keep a habit of going to sleep at the same time and working first 90 minutes on the most important task.

Chapter 18 goes further suggesting that we should work the whole day in this rhythm, taking generous brakes in between.

Chapter 19 suggests the following way to manage time: plan 5 minutes every morning, refocus every hour and do a 5-minute evening review.

Chapter 20 suggests to keep a diary (which is not new to me at all), but with entries that answer these questions:

  • Progress today
  • Setbacks today
  • Good things
  • Difficult things
  • One thing that will make tomorrow go better
As a side note, keeping a diary was highly praised in the book by Chade- Meng Tan, Search Inside Yourself. I’ve been keeping the diary myself for the last two years and I enjoy it much. It is very interesting to reread the notes I took on the days of major changes, such as moving to another city or long weeks of focused work.

Section 6: Energy

Chapter 21 warns against working without breaks and super long hours. Even though I strongly support this idea, I must say that the chapter itself lacked strong arguments to support that, but I still remember those listed in “Search Inside Yourself”.

Chapter 22 suggested many steps to keep yourself full of energy (and a list that can help to assist us how grave is our exhaustion is, which is graded in a way to make everyone feel very bad) but one idea I liked more than others – look at upsetting situations through lenses:

  • Reverse lens - how your opponent could be right.
  • Long lens - how would you view it half a year later.
  • Wide lens - what can you learn from this situation.

Let me explain why I think that list list has significant problem. After you’ve calculated your points, they mark a certain grade on a linear scale. Grades are the following:

  • Excellent
  • Strong
  • Significant deficits
  • Poor
  • Full-fledged crisis

An attentive reader would notice how quickly you fall from “strong” into “poor”.

P.S. I scored “Significant deficits”, so you can call it a bias.

Chapter 23 vouched for the 8-hour sleep again and suggested to jot down any ideas that can prevent us from falling asleep before going to bed.

That’s exactly why I prefer to write the diary in my bed (see chapter 20).

It also suggested a radical coffee nap lifehack (p. 149) that I did when I was studying for my bachelor’s (without coffee though) and it worked amazingly well to my great surprise!

Section 7: Email

I got myself prepared to this section long before hitting it: removed email and Facebook (except Messenger) from my mobile phone and wasn’t spending too much time on it (sorry to all my friends who suffer from my late replies).

P.S. Three weeks later after the exams are finished. Email is back on my phone, but with manual synchronization.

As to the folder system suggested in chapter 24, I started to use Zappier to create Trello cards for letters that I label with reply or hold in GMail. I consider proposal to use Yammer really bad. Wasn’t surprised to find out that the author of this chapter was not working in a corporation and thus didn’t have to use this software every day.

Chapter 25 is full of provocative challenges, and I decided to take on this one:

Reply to every e-mail

For two weeks, make your entire morning an e-mail processing zone. See whether […] a 100% response rate makes you more effective.

Verdict (aka tl;dr)

I think this a great book on productivity, I read it during the exam month and applied some of its ideas in my preparation.

If you feel your day could’ve gone better, get yourself a copy. Otherwise, keep calm & carry on.

Special thanks to Hendrik Heuer for reviewing the draft of this review. I’ll keep trying!