Advice on being effective

How can I become more successful? Whole forests have been felled to provide the paper to try to answer this question. You might, quite reasonably, be sceptical whether reading a self-improvement book can have any lasting impact on one’s life. Admittingly, most of these books can, at best, be replaced by a blog post or by the author’s TED talk. At worst, better use for some books is as a coffee cup coaster. Many self-help books do contain some nuggets of wisdom, however. I think they can reflect some of our best virtues: the desire to grow and improve as a student, employee, boss or friend. In this short post, I would like to present some of the advice I collected over the years that helped me in my daily life.

The pursuit of success

First, let us agree on a working definition of success:

A successful person is someone who can do most of the things they want to do, both professionally and personally.

Here, we will mainly restrict ourselves to the matter of time management, not with issues regarding finance, capabilities or opportunities. Note some aspects of this definition:

  • success is personal: it can only be defined according to your own goals;
  • success should embody both your professional and your private life; someone with a dream job but no time for family, friends and personal interests cannot be considered successful;
  • success is a state, not a goal. It is not some endpoint one can aspire to. Instead, it is a (hopefully) continuous state.

In this light, I am happy to consider myself reasonably successful. I have a fulfilling job and ample free time to spend with my loved ones.

The advice

1. Deciding what to do

The first step to the road of success is deciding what to do (and coincidently, what not to do). To succeed professionally, one has to become competent in doing something valuable. Specifically, one should invest in acquiring deep skills that support your (professional) mission statement. These skills are typically hard to attain yet advantageous to your career.

I will take the life of an academic scientist as an example. At the beginning of a project, I recommend outlining your research topic and the related literature. Think hard which skills might support these best and invest in learning the intricate details of a laboratory technique, a programming language or an essential piece of software. Only by genuinely mastering an aspect of your field, you can stand out among the masses.

Though it is, by definition, very hard to become the best in a domain, everyone has two gifts in which they are better than average. It was Scott Adams who proposed that by combining your strong points, you can create a unique and coveted profile. Taking myself as example, my mission statement is to use computational intelligence to improve biological systems. I am neither the greatest computer scientist nor an outstanding biologist. Still, I have a broad overview of both fields, which makes my expertise quite appreciated. Additionally, there are certain smaller subdomains, such as kernel-based learning and optimal transportation, I have invested in learning the nitty-gritty details. These allow me to take the lead in my own projects.

2. Think in systems, not in outcomes

“Your current habits are perfectly designed to deliver your current results.” – James Clear

When thinking about how to achieve something, most people have a particular target in mind. For example, you want to become acquainted with the literature, learn a new language, gain muscle, etc. The problem is that you might become blind-sighted about reaching this particular goal. Worse, reaching a goal is just a point in time, inevitably afterwards you will end up with a ‘now what?’-moment?

A powerful idea regarding performance and productivity is letting go of a goal-oriented mindset and embracing a systems-oriented mindset. So, try to cultivate daily or weekly habits that will generate the outcomes that you want. A systems-oriented mindset is a flip from ‘achieving’ to ‘becoming’. Instead of trying to work to a particular goal, be the person who regularly makes time to read papers, takes a run or practices a language.

3. Plan your day (and life)

At some point in their lives, everyone will advance to the point where one has more on their plant than they can handle. When organizing your tasks, look at both the urgency and the importance.

Time management matrix as proposed by Stephen Covey, image from Huffpost.

  • you don’t want to spend time on unimportant tasks, do you? Working on unimportant and not urgent tasks will lead to a bore-out;
  • working on important but urgent tasks will likely lead to a burn-out;
  • not urgent yet important tasks are the sweet spot: you work on things matter while still being at the top of your game!

A competent person is capable of taking a complex problem and breaking it down into manageable pieces. There are numerous applications to get organized. I use none of them (save for Google calendar). Of the many systems that I tried, the only thing that I still use daily is (non-artistic) Bullet Journaling. I like that this is an analogue method and only requires a notebook with numbered pages (I swear by Leuchtturm1917). In my simple setup, I have a long-term planner for the next six months, a calendar for the month and a daily log. I use the rapid logging system for tasks, notes and events.

The main types of items in rapid logging. Note that rapid logging matches splendidly with dotted paper.

You can enjoy the simplicity of using a simple notebook, or you can apply some sophisticated time management tool, it does not matter. The main point is to regularly take the time to divide your tasks into simpler subtasks and allocate blocks of time to work on them. Whether it is your work, household chores or plain leisure, you always want to ration your scarcest resource wisest.

Executive summary

If most self-improvement books could be summarized into a blog post, then it is only fair that a blogpost on self-improvement can be condensed in a sentence:

Think strategically about your goals, create and follow habits to achieve them and make a plan.

Resources

These are the books I found most helpful in organizing my life.

The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin

“Straight thinking in the age of information overload”, written by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin. The book discusses various strategies on how to organize your home, social life and work.

The books of Cal Newport

Cal Newport is a no-nonsense person who practices what he preaches. I can recommend most of his books, especially “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. By his own admission it can be summarized as:

  1. do fewer things;
  2. do them better;
  3. know why you do them.

Atomic Habits by James Clear

“Atomic Habits” by James Clear is quite instructive in how to tailor your habits to generate excellent outcomes. His weekly newsletter is the only newsletter I enjoy reading in full every time!

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

A classic and still highly relevant. In summary, the habits are:

  1. (internal) be proactive and take control;
  2. (internal) begin with the end in mind (i.e., work towards a goal);
  3. (internal) put first things first (i.e., make a plan);
  4. (exterior) think win-win (i.e., look at how you can both benefit when working together);
  5. (exterior) seek to understand, then to be understood;
  6. (exterior) synergize (i.e., look how working together can create better outcomes than working separately);
  7. develop good habits to cultivate yourself physically, mentally, socially and spiritually.

You will find echoes of these habits in my own advice.

Written on June 17, 2020