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Performing at your Peak?

In the Army v. Business thread ( Eli says:

"What I am looking for are ways to take a given group of people whom you don't choose and make them a better team. I have different folks.... What I need/want to do, is propell each and every one to the peak of his/her excellence."

Besides the methods espoused in Peopleware, what methods do you have to get yourself & those around you to perform at their peak.

For example, I keep a to-do list on paper (something about digital to do lists don't do it for me). I have a small spiral notebook I get from the supply room, and next to each item, I draw a little box in the margin. Then when I do something, I have the satisfaction of checking it off. I also put the date every day, and write down all my calls there. It makes it that much easier for me to go through my log to see what I did when, or who I talked to when.

Or if I have something tedious I'm putting off, I'll try to recruit someone to help me with it. It doesn't work for everything, but some tasks really do go better when you have someone else helping you, and the interaction is welcome after a long day of working alone.

So how do you Cross the Chasm (

PS - For those of you who celebrate it, HAPPY THANKSGIVING
Thursday, November 27, 2003

In the discussion about "Fire and Motion" [1], Karel  van der Walt mentioned the book "Patterns of High Performance" by Jerry Fletcher [2].

In this book, Fletcher claims that everybody has one unique, individual "high performance pattern", i.e. a way how a person gets his/her best results. Such patterns consist of about 10 to 15 steps. In following your pattern step by step, you (in Fletcher's words) will get into "high-performance mode" (sustained performance), as opposed to "grind-it-out mode" (mediocre performance with some peaks).

While Fletcher gives no theoretical reason why this is so, he provides lots of examples, taken from his work as consulter [3]: First, how to find out your own pattern; then, how to apply patterns to projects off track, decision making etc.; finally, how to use patterns in working teams, with special focus on pairs of people.

I got the book a few weeks ago, and definitely like - and recommend - it. The time since, however, is to short for me to judge whether this concept really works. Perhaps there are others here who have tried it? (Unfortunately, Karel's mail address no longer works).

- Roland

PS: Btw, I also work with a spiral notebook in a very similar manner. Don't think that alone ensures "peak performance", however.


- Roland
Thursday, November 27, 2003

Interesting theory, and thanks for the links. I think it's similar to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposes in Flow, which is probaly cited in Peopleware.

The beginning of Chapter 4 "The Conditions of Flow" has an interesting sentance:

"We have seen how people describe the common characteristics of optimal experience: a sense that one's skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing."

I think this is a pretty good description. Interestingly, when I read that description, the situation that pop into mind are:

- exercise / sports
- video games / board games

These are areas, unlike, say social events, with clear and explicit rules. Certainly these conditions can exist at a social event, as they do have their own rules and goals, but the rules aren't explicitly laid out like they are in sports and games.

Take a game like The Sims. Who would think that a game like this would be fun? Helping people eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, wash up and clean up after themselves so that they can be happy at work to get promotions. Yet it is fun because you always have:

- Distant goals, such as getting a promotion at work, or getting someone to fall in love with you.
- Immediate goals, such as raising the room score by cleaing the dishes.
- Obstacles, ever cheat in one of these games? They lose all their fun.

Which, I guess is another way of saying what Mihaly said in Flow.

In Chess, the end goal is explicit - Check Mate your Opponent. Intermediate goals are defined by the situation, and by and large, you know how well you're doing.

When you play football, or computer football, you can choose to work with or against your friends. The game is no less fun if you work in cooperative mode. So when in the Army v. Business thread, we talked about having an enemy - someone to work against, why couldn't the project itself be the opposition? Or perhaps a personal best. Ever try to beat your own high score in a video game, or your own best time in the 400 meter dash?

I think there's another aspect to Flow that isn't mentioned in that brief description - nuance. Subtle variation. This is what allows me to play the same song over and over again as I'm rehearsing or performing it. After a certain point, the song is no longer a challenge, but I enjoy playing it anyway. Especially with other people. I guess you could add interaction to that list as well.

I'd posit that, as Fletcher seems to propose, there's a certain memory component to Flow as well. When I pick up a guitar, or sit at a piano, all my previous experience in that situation comes back to me. If I've never played piano in front of someone before, or if I've failed in that task, then that memory too comes back to haunt me.

So I'd combine feedback & knowledge that you can do it with a positive rewards system, or memory of past achievements.

Earlier we discussed team building exercises. Perhaps these are simply an attempt to build into us a memory of achieving with our teammates that we can take back to the office with us. Enough accomplishments with our teammates and we can displace any memories of setbacks and team politics that hold a team back.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - Flow
Thursday, November 27, 2003

Paper lists do it for me. I scribble items off once they're done, scribble designs around them whilst I'm doing them and when I run out of space or the list looks too messy I copy all outstanding items to a new sheet, screw up and bin the old sheet, and start again.

I think the 'copy to new sheet' thing is the part which makes me deal with the things I'd rather avoid. You dont get that with electronic lists and the 3rd or 4th time I start writing out the thing I keep avoiding I usually just leap in and do it because I've been nagging myself with it.

I dont keep the sheets. Anything that needs to be kept (phone notes, numbers, etc) gets transferred into outlook. Any concepts or designs that I'd like to remember are either already in code or written about for an online article, or (more recently) brain dumped on my blog.

But, there's still a huge difference in my productivity depending on my office surroundings. In my own office it's quiet and there are no distractions and I have everything I need to hand or can simply order them as I can sign off on anything. When on client sites it's often the opposite.

Len Holgate (
Thursday, November 27, 2003

There is something about paper lists that makes them better than their digital counterpart.

1. Lack of editing makes you commit. There's just something about writing it that gives it more weight than typing it into a computer.
2. Lack of sort & categorization prevents you from constantly shuffling some items to the bottom.
3. There's so much more satisfaction to crossing an item off your list than clicking it and simply having it disappear, and digital lists with lots of strikethroughts or red items simply aren't as easy to read.
4. You're not likely to cover your notebook with your browser. You're also more likely to look down at the pad while you're on the phone.

While I'm here, this thread, touches on this topic a bit.

How do you Get Things Done?

To follow up on that thread, I've finished Getting Things Done by David Allen and I love the system. I've implemented it and it works. If you're already writing everything down, you're halfway there. The trick that this book taught me is to commit to the system totally. Don't write down some things and not write down others, write everything down. File everything away. Always go through your in basket (or inbox) in order and always decide what the very next action you can take on any given task is, and either do it now, or write it down.

Once you've done this, your brain is free from worrying about whether or not you've remembered X or Y, because it's on a to do list, and you will review your to do list on a regular basis.

Getting Things Done by David Allen
Thursday, November 27, 2003

Ordered. ;) Thanks.

Len Holgate (
Thursday, November 27, 2003

Scenario: Zurich, ca. 1905.
A clerk at the local patent office, Albert Einstein, prepares for the day:

"Ok, so I have to write a to-do list (on paper!) in order to be successful and get things done. Hm ... lets see what I've got to do today:

o state that light speed is always constant
o develop relativity theory as a consequence
o prove that E = m c^2

"Dang", he mutters, "this boring stuff takes up all my time, and prevents me from doing the *really* important things." He adds one further item to the list, and marks it as "highest priority":


Einstein is probably an unfair example. What I'd like to point out, though, are two things:

1) "being good at X" is NOT the same as "having fun doing X"

What Einstein liked most was to play his violin, and his dream was to become a great musician. He never got very good at it - yet he was good at other things (which were not so much fun, propably).

No offense, but when MarkTAW argues that he likes sports and video games, silently concludes that this is where he is good at, and then starts to analyze the common patterns (goals, rules, obstacles, ...), I got confused somehow. All I concluded was that he likes structured situations, and dislikes chaos.

2) No Silver Bullet

It's fine that David Allen, Jerry Fletcher, and Joel Spolsky tell us what worked for *them*: ToDo lists, High Performance Patterns, Bionic Offices, whatever. As we can read, David Allen's tips worked for MarkTAW. Great! This does not necessarily mean that they will work for me, Len, Eli's team, etc.

Before this turns to a "paper to-do lists are good/evil" flame war, I'd like to raise again Eli's question:

"I have different folks.... What I need/want to do, is propell each and every one to the peak of his/her excellence."

IMO, Eli has two options:

A) deal with methods, and find one method that works for anybody
B) deal with people, and find out which method works for whom

I'd recommend option B, especially since he stresses "I have different folks.... ".

- Roland
Thursday, November 27, 2003

It's a new kind of fun reading a discussion "about me", but it's time for me to have a saying in this. Unfurtunately for me I can't respond quickly to the posts as (for security reasons) I have no connection to the internet at work, so I do this at home.
Getting back on the subject at hand, I have to agree with Roland. It doesn't seem likely that there is a single "best" method of encouraging people, or influencing them in any way for that matter. Each one is a unique person, with a specific set of desires and dislikes and each one (probably) has a trigger button that if pressed, sparks his enthusiasm and elevates him to his best.
One of the things I am trying to combat most in my team, is the lack of interest in semi-related material. While for me, reading an article on anything from implementing regular expressions in assembly, through design patterns to broad management techniques is fascinating, it is not for most of my guys and girls. Even those who do have the potential of being interested in those subjects usually wave me off with the "if only I had time for it" comment. I strongly believe that in order to succeed (and of course to excell) in our line of work, one must read A GREAT DEAL.
I was talking to one of the more (realtively) experiences programmers of my team yesterday, and at some point (about at midnight :) we came to talk about this. This guy is exceptionally smart, very mature for his eraly twenties and a very good programmer. But absolutely refuses to read any work-related material. He even seems to be avoiding MSDN, and he never opens a book (though we do have quite a few of must-haves discussed on the Bookshelf thread). I asked him why, and tried to pry into his brain to find out. After quite a long conversation we came to the conclusion that it's the language. I don't recall whether I have mentioned this, but I live in Israel, so the natural language for all of us is Hebrew. The language problem I am referring to is reading English. I was suprised at that, his English is very good, but it seems that because reading English is unnatural a slightly more difficult to him than reading Hebrew, he doesn't even consider to broaden his knowledge through English texts. As you might have noticed, I have no such problem, and it was very suprising and hard to grasp. Thinking some more about it brought me to the conclusion that that might just be the problem other people have. Which brings me to the conclusion that I might use the insight of my mom, and English teacher, and not try to find the answer in technical and methodological suggestions.
I imagine at leadt some of you are non-native English speakers. Have any of you encountered such a thing? Would it be wise of me to envolve English studies in my training program for programmers? It seems quite far fetched, but if that's a serious problem, it certainly deserves a careful consideration.

Eli Golovinsky
Thursday, November 27, 2003


A. I started this thread to find out what other people do, not to try to impose one set of standards on everybody. I did this because I was interested in my own personal development, and perhaps to help anyone else who reads this thread.

If I don't ask & observe myself and others, how can I ever learn?

I opened with an example from my own life. Several other people responded that they do the same. Why do you conclude that I expect everyone in the world to maintain lists?

If you read my last post in the Army v. Business thread, you'll see that I intended for this thread to be personal anecdotes and not a dictatorial leadership style.

Regarding reading what others have written, such as David Allen or Joel Spolsky (whose methods I never espoused or claimed affinity for in this thread), I prefer to expose myself to a wide range of philsophies, and share what I've learned. Len likes to keep lists, so he's also going to look at David Allen's methods. Great. If you don't, you don't have to. If you had contributed something that worked for you, I'd certainly be willing to at least consider it, and maybe research it some more.

B. I take offense that you think video games and sports are "where he is good at." The implication there is "to the exclusion of other things."

I used video games and sports for two reasons.

- Nearly everybody likes video games and/or sports.
- These are two examples where there are explicit rules that must be followed.

Perhaps my own personal bias towards rule based play is exposed here, though I suspect I'm not alone. Certainly Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would agree with me.

Also, whose to say that rule based play isn't applicable to a work situation? Are you arguing that chaotic work environments are more productive and turn out higher quality products at a higher rate?

C. I never said Einstein should keep lists. Nor did you say he didn't. If Einstein's only goals were to

o state that light speed is always constant
o develop relativity theory as a consequence
o prove that E = m c^2

I doubt he'd have to write them down every day. Besides, his real goal was to unite what was known about Gravity and Light, what you mention were actually steps he'd have to take to get there.

D. "being good at X" is NOT the same as "having fun doing X"

I never said it was. However, I was trying to argue that "You would probably be better at X if you enjoyed doing it."

E. To turn around what you said about me, what I concluded from your post was that you so dislike being told what to do, that you rebutted my suggestions as if they were being imposed on you as law.
Thursday, November 27, 2003

On the subject of To Do Lists: check out what Mark Forster writes about them (

"There are two main reasons why it doesn't work. The first is that you never get more than a third of the way down the list. The second is that for every item that you cross off the list, you think of another three items to go on it."

He's written a really good book called "Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play". I particularly like what he writes about the resistance-principle.

Henrik Warne
Friday, November 28, 2003


Interesting link. He suggests Todo lists dont work and then describes how they can work. I guess the reason I find my lists so useful is that I've always used the optimised solution that he proposes...

Len Holgate (
Friday, November 28, 2003

That's a good article Henrik. I especially liked his way of prioritizing tasks - not by importance or or urgency, simply by how long they have been on the list.
Personally I do like computerized lists, it's clean, tidy, and I type much more quickly than I can write with a pen. Besides, using the Outlook tasks I can write my thoughts, and any relative information inside. Going one step ahead with the Mark Foster way, I think I'll try to arrange the tasks in the reversed order of their change date, so that tasks I haven't updated for a long time or those created least recently will end up at the top of my list.

Mark mentions in his article that you almost never get through to the end of your task list. I think it is absurd to even try to get to the end of it. The nature of a task list is never to empty. That's frustrating at first, but you get used to it. I am quite satisfied when my task list shrinks to about ten items, which it usually does towards the end of the week.

Another good techinque that I heard on one of the time management lectures I've attended is defining in explicit terms what are the main priorities of the job.

Lying in bed at night after a long holiday, I was inevitably thinking about the things I needed to do when I got back to work. Having read a lot of interesting things while on vaction I had about 40 to 50 ideas and tasks floating randomly through my mind, and each of them required what it seemed to be, immeidiate attention the next morning. It wsa very frustrating because I coudn't manage to get the priorities straight in my mind. Then I remembered the method I mentioned above. I heard about it, but never tried to implement it. So I got out of bed, took a pen and a paper and mapped out my job.

These were my conclusions :

Everything I do has to do with one of two things : either personell related, or management related.

I went on to divide each of these into 4 subcategories.

The personnell part was divided into

1. Personal relations (with reports)
2. Training
3. Atmosphere (discipline, fun, etc.)
4. Promotion

The management part was divided into

1. Customer relations
2. The future (long term planning
3. Analysis and design
4. Quality management

The specifics of my lists might hold no interest to you, but I wanted to provide a vivid example of what I mean. Having memorized this list, I can prioritize tasks on the fly. While working on a task, I quickly analyze which subject it is related to and can decide on the spot if it's important enough.

My list is too long. It should be 4-5 items long, and have a clear order of preferences. But I'm working on it. I have made some important decisions working on this list :
Quality assurace is something that is important to me, and altough it sometimes seems like good development time wasted, I do it. I haven't put delelopment in the list, because the entire team does that. I just have to get out of their way and handle the background noise.

This large-scale prioritizing helps a great deal in task management and simplifies the process. Instead of assigning a priority to each individual task, I subclass them into groups and prioritize the groups.

Eli Golovinsky
Friday, November 28, 2003

Unknown author:

By following the simple advice I read in an article, I have finally found inner peace....

The article read: "The way to achieve inner peace is to finish all the things you've started."

So I looked around the house to see all the things I started and hadn't  finished.... and before coming to work this morning I have finished off a bottle of Bacardi, a bottle of red wine, a bottle of Jack Daniel's, my Prozac, a small box of chocolates and 6 Beers, a 1/2 can of cider and some cheese.  Work has been a lot easier today, let me tell you.

You have no idea how good I feel....

"When life hands you lemons - Grab the salt & pass the tequila baby..."

Friday, November 28, 2003

Mark Forster's method isn't that different from David Allen's method.

When a project lands on your desk, or something in your inbox, say to yourself "What's the very next action I can take to bring this to closure?" That's what you put on your to-do list. You have to think about it some time, so why not now?

The example in the book is having to change the tires on your car. Rather than "have tires changed" you should think through to what you can actually do about it now, and typically you'll go through a few steps before you arrive at what you actually have to do next.

Bring car to garage, no wait, I have to call them first... I don't have their number, Steve has a good mechanic, I should find out who he uses... "Call Steve for to get his mechanic's number."

And if something can be done in a couple of minutes, do it now.

If you have to maintain multiple to-do lists, don't do it by project, do it by situation. Things you can do in the same location, like make phone calls. You can make phone calls away from your desk. This is sort of like making a shopping list. You make it not because shopping is one project, but because you can do everything in one location.

Always go through your inbox from first to last, this prevents you from procrastinating on certain items until they never get done.

Keep a "someday maybe" list of things you'd like to do but aren't pressing. Review it from time to time, but not every day.

There's more to the system than that, these are just a few mental notes on to-do lists I have from reading the book. It also covers filing, actually doing the things on your list, and so on.

I was hoping for some discussion of other things. How you get rid of distractions, like putting the phone on "send all calls to voice mail" or listening to your walkman to tune out a noisy office. Bringing food to your desk to prevent the temptation to go to the snack machine, adding to your hosts list and so on.

How do you create a productive work environment for yourself and others?
Friday, November 28, 2003

In one of his articles Joel talks about "the zone". I found it amazingly true that it takes a long time to get to that elusive level of concentration that you do your best work at. Joel said 15 minutes, I'd say for me it's more like half an hour.

I have also noticed that it is much easier to get into the zone when you are compelled to do the task with other people.

Let's say I just got back from lunch at 1 am and I have another chapter of a spec to write. If I'd sit down in front of my computer and start writing it will take me about half an hour before I can get my thoughts together. If I have a meeting at 2:30, I will probably end up doing nothing useful. But if the spec writing is a meeting on its own with a peer, that hour and a half could be very effective. So any task that could be done with a peer should be, and it should not be viewed as a waste of time. It's actually very productive. That is, of course, if the peer you are working with is concentrated on the task at hand and you're both motivated to get it done.

In our businees, specially in areas where there are more interruptions (lower management, system administration, QA), most of the real important work is done in the late hours of the evening because the rest of the day is filled with interruptions and "trying to get in the zone" dead time. But the late hours come after long work hours, and the concentration is not that high. I find that it helps me to get to work early and have things done during the hour and a half that I am alone at the office. That is of course only possible in organizations where work starts at 9 or later.

I have removed the reminder sound from my Outlook. I never know when an email comes in, unless I actually look in my email box. If somebody wants my immediate attention, they call, which is more effort than dropping an e-note and happens on rare occasions. The time saved by not repsonding immediately to emails is enourmous.

For tasks that need time to get done, I schedule meetings with myself in my Calendar. After a while, the people around me got used to the concept of meeting-with-self and got accustomed to not bothering me when I am in such a meeting.

A door that closes and a "Do Not Bother" hotel style sign on the door along with a policy of not interrupting someone who has that sign on the door can help a lot.

In noisy environments, a nature sounds CD and a pair of good quality headphones can get me concentrated. Music actually divides my attention and doesn't help.

It is also important to create a no-questions environment. Most of the short-answer questions asked can get an answer through Google or something like FogBUGZ. Any long-answer question desrves a scheduled meeting to discuss and explain. Going with this concept to the extreme, it is possible to create a no-talk envrionment at the office where non-work related conversations take place at the caffeteria (or similar), and all work related discussions are held in a meeting room.

Eli Golovinsky
Friday, November 28, 2003

I think that 15 minutes to get into the Zone thing is straight out of Peopleware. Their goal is to create an environment that would allow you that 15 minutes of uninerrupted time.

In a noisy environment a "white noise" like nature sounds seems like a good idea.

It sounds like you're on the right path.
Friday, November 28, 2003

This thread is really interesting.

Imagine living a "video game" version of your work day.
(Much like the "SIMS" version of an average person's life).

Video games merely structure activity so that it becomes a GAME.

Are there any other resources for discussing this topic?

(FLOW is already on my reading list. I've added Patterns of High Performance.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Something like 30 years ago I worked for a headmaster who had three lights outside his office.

Green = come in
Yellow = come in if urgent

A stunning efficiency mechanism.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, November 30, 2003

I read a book on animal training (and people training... the same concepts apply) where they trained a dog who used to howl all night that it wouldn't be let in if the black sign was on the door, only if the white sign was on the door.

The dog learned the system and stopped howling to be let in.

The difference in video games and sports is that there is a clearly defined goal, or end state. Life doesn't seem to have a defined goal, so you often have to define your own. Most people never do.

Read Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse.
Sunday, November 30, 2003

These days I mostly contrast 7 habits with high performance patterns to explain to my students the difference between modernist (science can explain everything) and post-modernist (an adequate truth over absolute truth) thinking.

I did correspond briefly with Jerry Fletcher but he already had an agent in my country and did not seem to taken by the possibilities of his method for developers.

His follow-up Paradoxical thinking had less meat for me.

anyway i include my e-mail this time and i am at too.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

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