Jul 312013

I’ve been carrying on a personal challenge for a while – attempting to remain in the 90th percentile for any activities I attempt. To some extent, I think it’s in my nature to compete with others. Alternatively, it’s a good way to be certain I’m actually applying myself.

Some activities are harder than others to gauge, but I find this system provides a good metric. It’s exceptionally hard to be the best at anything, but if you’re in the top 10% then you can be comfortable knowing that you’re doing reasonably good work. If you’re not in the top 10%, then you know you need to improve your methods and/or put in more effort.

Eliot Eshelman Top 10% of Profiles on LinkedIn

Eliot Eshelman Top 10% of Scramble Word Game

Knowing that I need to do great work also sets expectations for myself. I’ve modified my schedule, my mobile devices and my computers to improve my efficiency. It’s been shown time and time again that people are not good multi-taskers, so I don’t try. My computer doesn’t alert me when I get new e-mail; neither does my phone. I hide my Inbox from myself while I’m working to prevent myself from being distracted by the latest new message. Yes, I work in technology and deal with hoards of e-mail, but that doesn’t mean I have to read my Inbox in realtime; once every 30 minutes really is ok. And I’m still complemented for my quick responses!

My one exception is calendar events. Things that truly have to be done on a certain date by a certain time go in Google Calendar. Events are broken into categories (work, personal, family, etc) with appropriate reminder times set. My phone will remind me if I’m up against a deadline.

I know that I work the most quickly and efficiently in the morning, so I strive to finish one important task every morning (which can be challenging when you’re busy!). I also just “get things done”: if I know something will take a few minutes, I complete it as soon as it crosses my mind. It’s clearly distracting me and will pop up again. When it’s done, I don’t have to think about it and won’t have it looming over me.

I have noticed very substantial benefits from reducing distractions and focusing on completion of tasks. Take a hard look at how often your mind is shifting gears during any given day.

During commutes, I’ve been working my way through two excellent NPR podcasts: Innovation Hub and Freakonomics. Both offer a surprisingly dense set of insights on people and the world. I’m trying to keep track of them all to make myself more effective. The shortlist:

  • Innovation Hub – “Alone Together”: people often feel a sense of relief when their phone breaks, because they won’t have to worry about the obligation of being instantly needed by their acquaintances. I have gotten around this in my personal life by turning off notifications and signing out of social networks. I log on when I’m ready to deal with people, not 24×7.
  • Innovation Hub – “Our Multitasking Romance”: Some people say they are good at multi-tasking. They are not. And neither are you!
  • Innovation Hub – “Can Money Buy Happiness?”: After a certain point, money doesn’t really make us much happier. If we’re earning the going rate in our field/industry, then there are so many other factors involved in our happiness and decisions. You may become much more satisfied simply by changing your perspective on what you do every day. And you’ll also become more productive.
  • Freakonomics – “The Upside of Quitting”: We are bad at realizing that a project is floundering. Instead, we think about all the sunken costs and keep slogging through. Often, it’s better to fail fast and move on to a project that will be more successful.

Obligatory Disclaimer – Examine Your Privilege

Despite everything I’ve said above, I can’t imagine anyone can actually be in the 90th percentile every time they do anything. And for some, it would be difficult or impossible to do it once.

I’m privileged to work at an excellent company in a fascinating industry. If circumstances had been slightly different, I would never have found the opportunity, or wouldn’t have stayed as long as I have.

I’m building upon social, economic and intellectual capital that was built up over generations. I am thankful for the things I’ve been able to do, but really can’t say it was my own doing. We’re all products of our circumstances.

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