How to Engineer Yourself for Peak Performance

A Guest Post by Alik Levin

Why are some cars faster than others? Why do some remote controls switch channels faster than others? Why do some mobile phones dial faster than others? Why do some digital cameras take pictures faster than others?

The answer is simple – some products are engineered with high performance in mind and some are not.

Why are some people less productive then others? We are all “engineered” the same, aren’t we? Fortunately, people can change and continually improve. You are your life’s engineer.

I am a software performance engineer and I’ve adopted J.D. Meier’s Software Performance Frame for my professional life. I am amazed by how this framework maps perfectly to my personal life. Here are a few examples:

Caching

Keeping just enough information at hand is essential to be focused and productive. I manage simple lists of immediate action items with related information. Once done with an action item, it disappears from the list releasing room for more current action items. The trick is keeping the list fresh, not stale. The other trick is having it handy and easily accessible.

Communication

I’ve developed a communication diet. I use email as my primary communication channel, which helps me be mobile and removes the need to be connected to any communication device. Anybody can reach me anytime no matter where I am. If you send me an email, expect a reply within 24 hours. Usually it is much less. If you call my mobile expect to hear “My email is <<email goes here>>, send me an email and I will contact you in 24 hours or less”. This helps me manage action items too.

Concurrency

Few humans can do multiple things simultaneously. Maybe some can, but most of us handle things one-by-one. Once engaged with one thing, I lock on to it. Once completed, I unlock myself for the next thing in the pipeline. I think of myself as a pipeline that processes things one-by-one. That said, I do my best to make sure my calendar does not have overlapping activities in it.

Coupling / Cohesion

How much dependency do you have? How tightly are you coupled to your office, people, devices, or time? The less you are coupled, the less dependent you are and the more productive you will be. Batching related items for processing is a productive technique for me. For example, I batch all office work for Sunday, because I am in the office all day long. That is the principle of high cohesion.

Data Access

What data gets processed? Emails are processed daily and I stopped reading newspapers and listening to radio and TV news. I use more productive techniques like RSS and alerts.

How do you process data? How much time does it take you to find a document, an email, or a contact? Building solid habits for filing and accessing data will save you time.

Algorithms

My productivity habits are like algorithms. Simple algorithms for email processing, meeting management, time allocation, and goal setting.

Mechanical work + streamlined processing = saved time.

For example, I never go to meetings without clear goals and an agenda. During the meeting I stay focused on the agenda and ask others to stick to it. I take notes which become the meeting summary and read them aloud at the end of the meeting, setting each action item for each participant.

Exception Management

Expect problems. There will be exceptions. Anticipating problems reduces stress when they occur. That way it is faster to fix the problem and with less negative emotion. Negative emotion drains energy and productivity.

Resource Management

How do you lock and release your resources? When your resource is locked, it cannot be used by others. Time is a good example. Do you allocate and lock your time proactively for important activities? If not, chances are you will be juggling a multiple activities simultaneously which is not productive. Allocate your time proactively, and increase your focus which reduces errors.

State Management

I manage simple lists of my life projects – customers, family, finances, and few others. Each list item holds its current state. The trick is having it handy and keeping its state updated consistently. It is best if it all sits in one familiar place.

Finally ask yourself?

Am I getting connected to the Matrix?

Or Am I getting disconnected from It?

The Matrix Trailer

My name is Alik Levin and I work for one of the world’s largest software companies, with more to do than there are hours. I like trying out new techniques for self improvement and personal development. I adopt what works and share it on my blog at http://practicethis.com.

Do American Suburbs Breed Fear?

Christine observed a fascinating difference between suburban and urban parenting. Several times a week, she has the opportunity to observe the beginning of the day at two different Minnesota public schools, one in a suburban setting and the other in an urban setting.

This is what she observed:

Burnsville (Suburb):
A long line of SUVs and buses dropping kids at school. Not a single child walking to school even though the school is surrounded by residential housing. Crossing guards on the corners standing around with nothing to do.

St. Paul (Urban):
Hundreds (literally) of children walking and biking to school without adult supervision.

My first reaction was, “Yeah, but you are comparing different socioeconomic groups. The parents in the urban area don’t have the resources the parents in the suburbs have, like time and transportation.” She said, “No, the school is in Mac Groveland, one of the wealthier neighborhoods in St. Paul.”

So I looked it up:
Demographics in the suburban Eagle Creek neighborhood

Demographics in the urban Mac Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul

While the incomes are a bit higher in the suburb the net worth is almost the same… hmmm, who do you think has more debt?

What makes this even more interesting is the irrational behavior of the suburban parents. While the suburban neighborhood is one of the safest neighborhoods in America, they waste time and energy waiting in line to drop their kids at the front door of the school. Why don’t they drop them on the corner and make them walk half a block? They’d save 20 minutes and a gallon of gas.

  • Traffic is far heavier near the urban school.
  • Total crime risk near the urban school is 6 times higher than the suburban one.
  • Violent crime risk near the urban school is 5 times higher than in the suburban one.
  • There are 13 times the number of registered sex offenders near the urban school.
  • 95 registered sex offenders live within 5 miles of the urban school – one directly across the street.
  • Only 7 registered sex offenders live within 5 miles of the suburban school.

So why the difference? Why are suburban parents more controlling? Anybody want to take a stab at it?

Malcom Gladwell, where are you?

My best guess is…
More suburban parents watch television news and listen to talk radio and it distorts their perception of risk.

Developing the Vince Lombardi Habit of Winning

Do you know why so many ‘gifted’ children go on to produce mediocre results with their ‘gifts’? How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m a talented guy, why can’t I achieve results like him? How did someone with such average intelligence, average looks, and average ability, become so successful?” 

Vince Lombardi, a man with average looks, average intelligence, and average athletic ability, became one of the most successful coaches in history, and his wisdom debunks many common beliefs about competition, giftedness, success, self-improvement, and personal growth.  

One of the most unassuming, average guys from my High School went on to make over $100 million dollars. Actually, today he’s pretty good looking guy, but back then there were dozens of people who were smarter, more charismatic, better looking, or better athletes. How did it happen? How is he different?

Another person from my High School is one of the smartest and best looking people I have ever known and has done little with her life but complain about how ‘stupid’ everyone is and she wonders why the ‘stupid’ people seem to be so much happier and wealthier than her. She talks about how it must be a conspiracy or blind luck. She says most people are too shallow to understand her intelligence. She has an IQ over 170 and can’t understand why people won’t simply pay her six figures for her brilliance. You can see the problem, but she is blind to it. Why? How did this happen to someone who was given a major advantage in life? I’ll explore that in this post.

Vince Lombardi’s formula for being #1 is simple and it doesn’t require high intelligence, good looks, or world-class talent. But remember, we often confuse simple with easy. Simple is not easy. For example, losing weight is simple, but it can be extraordinarily difficult. Ask any computer programmer who has developed a simple solution and he will testify that complex solutions are far easier to create than simple ones. Complexity is the sanctuary of the novice, and simplicity is the revelation of a genius. So when people tell you to keep it simple, they are asking you to think like a genius.

Read Vince Lombardi’s speech on what it takes to be #1, and you’ll see his formula. Winning is a habit. Winning attracts more winning and unfortunately so does losing.

So how do we develop the Vince Lombardi habit of winning?

Develop a Strong Head
To have a strong head you need to have a disciplined mind. Everything ever accomplished by a human being began as a thought. This isn’t magic. It’s an undeniable fact. Set your goals, focus your thoughts, visualize the outcome, document the details, and make it a habit, because good habits are the foundation of all accomplishment. But it does require much more than thought alone.

Develop a Big Heart
Immerse your focused, habitual, and obsessive thoughts with positive emotion. Mix your burning desires with faith, love, determination, gratitude, and persistence. This is what my son calls Sha-hand-show-bo. This is how you keep going even when you want to quit. This gives you the ability to reach down inside yourself, when you don’t think you have anything left to give, and find the energy to persist. Emotional stamina separates winners from quitters.

Learn to Love Competition
Another way to say this is… be courageous. In all endeavors, on your way to the top, there are people who will scoff at you, impugn you, and when they become threatened, they will try to stomp you out. Getting to the top means knocking someone else out of #1. Some people don’t want to hear this, but it’s true.

Many people are confused about competition. They think of those who will do anything to win. Lying, cheating, and stealing isn’t winning, it’s corruption. Winning is being the best not the worst, so don’t confuse being a winner with being a crook.

Some people say creativity is constructive and competition is destructive, but there is a flaw in this logic – if you create something new which disrupts and challenges the existing order, you are competing whether you like it or not. Creative new solutions must compete with existing paradigms for attention and resources much like web 2.0 is challenging the old media. Do not be fooled into thinking you can create something valuable for others without competing – you can’t. If you aren’t competing for someone’s dollars, you are at least competing for their time and attention.

Evolution occurs from the competitive selection of all things, which are in a state of constant change, recreating and reinventing themselves to become better than what came before them. Change is the new replacing the old. Competition is the means of determining which change is best. Competition is necessary to grow, so to avoid competition is to avoid growth.

Learn to Love Discipline
Self-discipline is critical to success, happiness, and personal freedom. How happy and free is the undisciplined irresponsible person? The answer seems obvious doesn’t it? There is no freedom without responsibility and there is no success without self-discipline.

Does that sound too black and white? Look at the areas where you need to grow. Be honest with yourself. Are they areas where you lack discipline?

How does this affect the ‘gifted and talented?’

Many of you fit into a group, which the education establishment has labeled ‘gifted.’ Labeling someone ‘gifted’ is dangerous because it breeds arrogance. An arrogance which hurts the ‘gifted’ and keeps them from reaching their potential.

I’ve spent decades around under-achieving ‘gifted’ individuals. These folks had two major traits that kept them from succeeding:

1. Without effort, thought, or training, they simply knew the answers to difficult problems. Many of their peers had to work hard, pay attention, and build academic discipline to solve problems. But for many gifted students, it was effortless.
2. When they didn’t understand something intuitively, learning it was easy, requiring only 1-3 iterations to achieve mastery, while their peers required 10+ iterations. Learning the same material required far less studying for the gifted learner.

Dr. Bertie Kingore makes similar observations in her essay about the differences between the high-achiever, the gifted learner, and the creative thinker.

So the danger is this…
Many ‘gifted’ kids don’t learn self-discipline because they don’t need to. Learning is too easy. I’ve seen the same thing happen to gifted athletes.

During a staff meeting at work, I asked a bunch of co-workers a question, which generated looks that seemed to question my sanity…

Is a straight A student really successful? Are they really getting a good education? If they never fail, what have they learned about themselves?

A few people seemed horrified that I was suggesting that an A student could be a failure.

But this is what I was getting at…
If a student pushed herself as hard as she could to achieve top grades, I’d say yes, she is on the road to success. However, if she is getting top grades with little effort, she is being cheated and set up for failure in the future because she doesn’t know her limits. She’s never pushed them. She hasn’t developed the self-discipline necessary to succeed at something difficult. So she develops a habit of doing just enough to get by, and later her peers blow past her in every measure of happiness and success. It’s the classic tortoise and the hare story.

Let me leave you with something I’ve discovered about what truly makes me happy. I spent years coasting, doing less than I was capable of, under the false belief that talking it easy would result in happiness. Coasting became a habit. But it never resulted in happiness. In my late twenties I discovered that pushing myself to my limits resulted in far more happiness than taking it easy (I know, I’m a slow learner). Today when I find myself falling into depression or self-destructive thinking, I know what the problem is… I’m coasting, I’m not pushing hard, and I’m not growing.

The universal Law of Growth states ‘that which is not growing is dying.’ So every time I start to slip, I know why. It’s because I have stopped growing and it is time to push myself hard to learn something new, to solve more problems, or to help other people.

And you know what…

It works every time.

(FYI – I’m a Green Bay Packers fan and I love Lombardi. Go Pack! Beat the Giants on Sunday! Let’s bring home lucky #13!)

Tell me what you think? I’d like to know.

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Back from a Radical Sabbatical

I want to let you know that while I haven’t posted since December this blog is still alive and I am currently working on several posts. A co-worker told me today that I had better post something soon or people might start thinking I went AWOL. I decided I needed to take a break from blogging and reasses my goals. Christine’s online business is growing larger and faster than we had planned (that’s a real good thing), the boys need a lot of attention, and Ergotron has some very cool things planned for 2008, so blogging has slipped to about #4 on my priority list. So stay tuned, I haven’t gone away, I love to write, and there is more coming in 2008.

A variety of topics continue to capture my attention, personal growth, financial growth, libertarian politics, and storytelling. I am considering creating two more blogs. This blog will be my personal blog and be dedicated to personal and financial growth, a new blog with political stuff (I feel like I bore many of you with my political rants), and a third blog where I can publish short stories.

I’d be grateful for any feedback on the possibility of three blogs. I have serious reservations about trying to maintain three sites.

*******

On a very important side note…

Can anyone out there help me?

Do you work for Amazon or know anyone who works for Amazon? Particularly the Amazon Alliance?

I’d sure like to talk to someone from Amazon about a simple misunderstanding that has been almost impossible to resolve due to automation and I know it would be resolved if I talked to the right person.

I appreciate any help.