Personal Output

I’m spending 2019 as an Entrepreneur in Residence at Whiteboard Advisors. I’m in “project selection” mode at this point.

Executive Function keeps coming up. How to help kids, especially high school boys, get organized and focused? You’re only as good as the work you get done. You only learn when you pay attention and put in the time.

So I’ve been reading the research, but also thinking about my own “personal output.” I’ve been a long-time, always-improving practitioner of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, modified and adapted over the years. For an adult, I think personal output depends on five questions:

  • Do you know what to do?
  • Are you able to focus?
  • Are you able to do the work well?
  • Are you in touch with the right people? 
  • Are you working hard yet staying loose?

Do you know what to do?

This is the big one. Do you know what to do? Now? Today? This week? 

“The single most important resource that we allocate from one day to the next is our own time.” – Andy Grove, High Output Management

Knowing what to do depends on:

  • Priorities. What are your key goals? Have you turned them into projects and prioritized those tasks? Or if your goal is “way-of-being” (i.e. “hyper-responsive to customers”), do you have daily practice to help you live it?
  • Schedule. Big tasks need uninterrupted blocks of time, scheduled back from real-world deadlines. I like to “cluster” smaller tasks — phone calls, or processing email — into dedicated windows of time. I like status meetings to be short and problem-solving meetings to be long.
  • Capture. You can’t work on the thing you forgot about. GTD has an elegant approach to capture. The main thing is to document and consolidate your lists.
  • Rhythm. Every day, I try to write down the 2-3 key things I aim to accomplish. Every week, I do a review to revisit goals and priorities, plan my schedule, and backstop capture.

Are you able to focus?

Focus is a superpower. In meetings, on calls, at your desk. I think it’s about:

  • Mindset. For me, focus on a task or in a meeting comes from knowing I’m working on the right thing and that everything else will be waiting for me when I’m done. 
  • The right work. If you can’t focus, it might be task avoidance — you don’t want to do the thing at all. Are you trying to do work that’s wrong for you? I’ve known sales reps who didn’t like to pick up the phone!
  • Energy management. If you pay attention, you can schedule work and meetings when you have the right energy for the job at hand. Late-night and uninterrupted, post-exercise with a clear mind, etc.
  • No distractions. You need a system to disable notifications, close windows, and create the context for focused work. Also a clean and tidy physical workspace.

Are you able to do the work well?

Expertise and excellence are always within reach. But you have to reach for:

  • Your standard of excellence. Have you set your standard for the work you do? It may be a stretch, especially if it’s a new area of responsibility or a new type of project. But setting the standard will motivate you and those around you.
  • Learning: macro. You can train on any aspect of your current or desired job. SellingCodingSEO optimization. I’m currently enrolled in the excellent Smartly EMBA. Never stop learning.
  • Learning: micro. Alistair Cockburn talks about “micro-techniques.” Little things like using keyboard shortcuts in email, taking effective notes. 3 seconds here and 5 minutes there start to add up. Watch how the people who amaze you work.
  • Measurement. I try to regularly check my work against my standard of excellence. Professionally, you may use OKRs, KPIs, or other methods to measure output. But don’t forget to analyze input — “how well did I run that meeting,” or “did I plan right for those 20 prospecting calls?”

Are you in touch with the right people?

A risk of focusing on “personal output” is becoming an automaton — relentlessly executing without making personal connections, losing touch with those who matter most. I suggest you:

  • Plan your communications architecture. Weekly one-on-ones with your employees, regular staff meetings, task force working sessions, daily stand-ups, whatever is relevant for your job. Co-locate and cycle fast when you can, but keep the routines.
  • Don’t confuse “contact” with “communication.” I am anti-Slack: Samuel Hulick more or less summarizes my perspective. If people are speaking just to be heard or posting just to be noticed, avoid the meeting or the channel.
  • Socialize with your colleagues. Teams that know one another well and have fun together tend to work better together.
  • Stay in touch with your friends in the industry. Conferences are the default method, but it’s worth keeping track of people you like to talk to monthly or quarterly.

Are you working hard yet staying loose?

I love to work. Marge Piercey’s “To be of use” is my favorite poem. A gift from my first real boss. Look:

  • You have to put in the hours. There are no shortcuts. You can work flexibly – wake up early to e-mail, or put in a couple of hours after your kids are in bed. But effort yields compound returns. In the early days of Wireless Generation, we joked about working in “dog years.” We learned a ton and grew up fast.
  • It’s easier if you love what you do. Paul Graham writes on this (and lots of other things too). You’ll know it when you find it.
  • Leave yourself space. Back to scheduling — innovations and lateral thinking arise in quiet reflection. Leave yourself room to noodle.
  • Unorthodoxy wins. I struggle with the Art of War, but took this lesson away: if you can stay loose enough to be surprising, you’ll enjoy yourself and you’re more likely to win, however you measure it.

My personal output practice is like an exercise regime. I don’t actually do a review every single week. Things come up. But I do my best to get back on plan.

Of course, not all of these questions or suggestions apply to every job or lifestyle. A manager of a team of 200 is going to schedule differently than a software engineer or a middle school teacher.

Looking back, I was bad at a lot of this stuff in high school. I tested well, I could write a term paper overnight, and I kept showing up to the activities I committed to, so I did just fine. But it wasn’t until I got a few years into my career that I got my act together. 

I’m curious for your suggestions on how to help kids with their personal output.

And I’m always learning — I’m curious for your suggestions for me as well!



I write once a month or so.
Sign up: