Sunday, February 23, 2020


Today I finished "Lead Yourself First", a book I marked as "want to read" in 2018 but never got to it. 

Cal Newport mentioned it in a podcast and I'm so glad I read it. 

The main idea is, solitude, defined as being "isolated from input from other minds, working through a problem on its own", is essential for leaders to thrive. It generates clarity, analytical clarity, creativity, and help with emotional balance. 

The idea is extremely resonating. Thanks to social media and smartphone, solitude can be easily gotten rid of nowaways. You can put on podcasts for long car rides (which I do every day). Check your Instagram feed while waiting in line for your Starbucks coffee. I sometimes even play news podcast while in shower, although I can't even hear it very well. It's good to have some background noise. I rarely have moment of real solitude - alone with my thoughts.

However, I get my best ideas in solitude. The best example is plane and train ride. I used to fly quite a bit for work at my last job. I love those plane ride where I'm free from Internet and distractions. For my current job, once in a while I take the NJ transit train to New York. It's one hour ride. When I have a clear business problem to solve, this one-hour ride is my most productive time. I took a piece of paper, a pen in hand, and just start writing. What's the situation, the challenge, and what the options are. Maybe it's the rocking motion of the train, I can always make significant progress thinking through the problem. No email, no phone call, no distractions.

The book inspires a few actions to create more solitude, and use them for a more fulfilling work/personal life:

  • Create a list of deep work worthy personal/business problems to think through during solitude: I already started capturing some big challenges at work/in personal time that need more clarity/creative solution. So next time for a long car ride, instead of turning on my podcast, I'll devote that hour to just thinking through the problem. To quote the book, it's an important leadership skill:"Among the most valuable functions a leader can perform is hard thinking about complex problems: identifying the problem precisely, making the premises of his thought explicit, and then examining each link in his logical chain—ideally all done on a notepad." 

  • Create solitude especially for big decisions, or when emotional stake is high: for me, especially the latter one. When something upsetting happens (at work), the emotion I feel seems overwhelming. I tend to imagine the worst case scenario and ruminate. A good step is to step away from the situation, take a walk alone, meditate, and focus your mind on something else. It's better to come back after some quiet time, instead of getting caught up in the emotion. Another good tactic I learned from this book, is to write a letter to the person you're upset with, and never send it - a tactic Abraham Lincoln deployed. 

Friday, February 21, 2020

What Makes a Productive Day for Me?

Overall, I'm a very productive person. For the last two years, I've been working on a highly visible project at work. It's super fast-paced, high pressure, and my responsibilities expand and evolve as I demonstrated my competencies in handling them. 

With that, I constantly think about time management, productivity, how to focus, how to strike work/life balance, etc. I noticed there are days that feel more right than the others: I can focus on the most important tasks, think clearly, juggle multiple deadlines, yet don't feel very stressed. 

On the other hand, I've had days when everything seem urgent, my to-do list is too long, I have a hard time focusing on one tasks, keep getting interrupted. As a result, stress level is super high. So I decided to pay even closer attention to how I work and figure out what makes a productive day FOR ME.

Here's a couple things I uncover:
  • I start the day knowing my MIT (most important task): So instead of jumping into performing a task, I spent a few minutes (no longer than 10) either reviewing what I had planned the day before, or just jotting down what I must accomplish that day, in terms of priority. And be honest with myself. Don't be too ambitious. Know the difference between urgent and important.
  • Open as few applications and website tabs as possible: I do best focused work when I'm in a shutdown mode. Turn off emails (or switch to "work offline" mode) so the notifications don't interrupt my thoughts. Only open applications/website that you work on. Normally it's a PPT/word, plus one website if I need to research. 
  • Set a timer for a focused period (40-45 mins), stop when time is up, take a break. If timer is up and you're in the middle of a thought, finish it. But definitely stand up and take a short break. One of the mistakes I tend to make is to ignore the timer and carry on. 99% of the time, I don't produce any value after that 45 minutes. The brain needs a short break.
  • Train yourself to ignore distractions. Be it a Skype message, a text message, a notifications on your phone. It's much harder to focus back your attention after that 1 minute distraction answering a question on Skype. Better yet, turn them all off!
  • Practice. Hold myself accountable to these principles above. It's easy to slip back to old way of doing things. Like any habits, it takes mental muscle to stick to these habits before they stick.
I expect to uncover more rules by observing myself. One thing I yet to figure out is the right cadence to check emails. More on that later.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Exploring Deliberate Practice

The word "focus" has been on my mind for a few days. Sometimes I find myself distracted by Apple Watch notifications, iPhone alerts, or any novel distractions while trying to focus on the task at hand. As I think deeper though, this only happens under two circumstances:

1) I became bored with what I was doing. I simply don't find it interesting.
2) I was challenged by what I was doing.

We'll tackle the second scenario at a later time. But getting bored with a task signals I probably wasn't spending my time on the right task - things that add true value and align to my strengths/passion.

This takes me to exploring "deliberate practice" - the concept I discovered from Cal Newport's blog. A few important posts to make note of:

  • Cal Newport introduces the idea of "deliberate practice" in this post. The idea starts with observing the chess experts and how they become grandmasters.
Two big questions on my mind:
  1. In knowledge work field such as marketing and brand management, where no clear structure or success metric exist, how do you deliberate practice, and on what skills? 
  2. The same goes for even soft skills like interpersonal relationship, management skills, and networking skills. How should one approach deliberately practice those, daily?
I took a break from writing this post when a thought crossed my mind. 

At work, I have this digital marketing director that I really admired. She might be a really inspiration for "deliberate practice". She has worked in digital marketing for decades. Since she joined the company a couple years ago, she no doubt has contributed significantly to the digital acceleration of the organization. Her expertise in digital marketing is impressive. Everyday, she will share great articles of digital marketing topics on Workplace. I mean EVERYDAY. It's clear even at her level, she continues to build her marketing knowledge every single day. 

A good role model for deliberate practice in knowledge work field like marketing. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

What My Morning Routine For Work Looks Like

I've set into a good morning routine for a while. I wanted to share it and what I like about it, to help inspire you develop a morning routine that works for you. 
  • 5:45am - 6:00am - Wake up. Put on gym clothes and head downstairs for the morning workout. On my way to the basement, I'll feed my cat his breakfast:)
  • 6:00am to 6:30am - I work out for 30mins on my elliptical at a very casual pace. My heart rate is usually 120-130 bpm, which is significantly lower than what it was during my pre-pregnancy workout. During workout, I either watch Netflix, or read a book on my iPad (It's doable because I'm on elliptical. I tried reading while running on treadmill before. It's also feasible if you make the fonts super big. I would not recommend it as it strains your eyes.)
  • 6:30am - 7am: shower and get dressed for work. Before I shower, I put my breakfast on to heat it up.
  • 7:00 - 7:30am: breakfast and clean up after it. I like to quickly wash dishes from breakfast and clean up the sink. It usually takes only 5-6 minutes, but sets a completely different tone than leaving them in the sink. Fresh start!
  • 7:30am: leave for work (my commute is more than 1 hour).
I've stick to this morning routine for weekdays for almost 7 months now. Two main reasons I like about this routine:
  1. It makes my workout more consistent: Surprisingly, making workout first thing in the morning, and keeping it 30mins long actually allow me to work out much more consistently. In the months of December and January, I exercised 47 out of the 52 days. And this is the winter time, when I'm usually less motivated to get up early thanks to the cold weather and sun rising later.
  2. I'm able to sit down and eat a more nutritious breakfast: A good breakfast helps energize you for the day. Sitting down and enjoying the breakfast is a luxury I could still afford at this life stage. I'm fully prepared to give it up once the baby comes.
It's important to be flexible too. I'm fully prepared to tweak this routine to fit into lifestyle. There is no one-size-fits-all routine. The important thing is knowing your priorities and getting ready to make decisions. You could always develop the best morning routine for YOU. 

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