On diets, baseball, project management, and getting things done.
There is a thing called a mind hack. If you are unaware, a mind hack is an ostensibly productive, or at least positive, use of the esoteric nature of our brain to trick ourselves into doing something we otherwise might not due to procrastination, priorities, or ‘oh pretty butterfly’ distractions. For the most part almost anything you find in the self-help isle of a book store is utilizing this concept in one way or another (even if the authors are blissfully unaware of this themselves). From diets to people management, from personal productivity to programming project management, they are all like Nomar Garciaparra’s pre-batting fidget routine, or Dumbo’s feather.
What I find amusing, or is it depressing, is that Timothy Mouse knew what we are doing in 1941. They’re not actually making us fly, lose weight, or get more work done. They’re all Dumbo’s feather, they distract us from thinking we can’t do something, and help us get out of our own way. In baseball you see hitters go through elaborate routines before each at bat. We know, and hopefully they do as well, that these routines aren’t “doing” anything per se, but like Dumbo’s feather it helps them to not over-think the process and let their experience and instincts to the work.
When you pick the latest diet craze, or perchance you pick one from twenty years ago, the primary thing you’re doing is giving yourself a framework to be mindful of what you are putting into your body. Dieting is a relatively simple, if not easy, concept: eat enough food to keep your body from starving, but less food than you burn (measured in calories). For some the diet that works for them is to cut out carbs, or lower fat, or eat a grapefruit a day, or whatever. The main function of all of these though, is to give you method for being aware that you’re consuming a certain number of calories (though they’re not always measured as such) and possibly tracking that you’re doing a certain amount of exercise. There is the 7-word diet put forth by Michael Pollan: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. If you keep it in mind, you’ll be limiting the calories you eat, limiting yourself to food (not food-like consumables like Oreos and American cheese), and by eating mostly plants you’ll fill yourself up with nutrient dense calories that will keep you feeling more full and less likely to binge on a bag of Oreos.
In the realm of personal productivity there have been numerous methodologies for “Getting Things Done” like the Franklin Covey methods (and associated products) and David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). These generally give you a framework of things to do which aren’t empirically the best, but are designed to work around the problems our primitive brains have working in our modern world. Our brains are simply not wired to hold everything in them that we need to do in a given day/week/month/career, and most of these personal productivity methodologies are simply acknowledging that and getting you to use a paper brain to store the information and allowing your meat computer to do what it does best: think/compute/imagine/innovate.
When it comes to team projects and getting things accomplished, especially in IT, there are “project management methodologies” which are serving the same basic purpose as any given personal productivity methodology would. They’re attempting to give a framework for us to get out of our own way. Depending on the nature of your business and project it may be best to use a “classic waterfall” project management method, or a fancy new “Agile” method, but I think it is a serious mistake to think that one or the other is “the best” way of approaching something. Unless you’re an Agile development consultancy it is unlikely that Agile development will suit your needs in every project, just as it is unlikely any other methodology will work in all cases.
It is far too easy for us to find our favorite mind hack and become disciples and evangelists for it as “the one true way” of managing ourselves, our teams, or our projects. The feather served its purpose for Dumbo and let him overcome his fear of flying. Nomar’s pre-batting routine served its purpose of distracting and focusing him long enough every at-bat to let his instincts (developed through hours in the batting cage) win him Rookie of the Year honors and a batting title during his career. I think the main thing to remember about this isn’t learning how to be the best GTD practitioner or Agile developer, but that the goal is, or at least should be, to get something accomplished. And that, is less about how you’ve tricked yourself into being productive, and more about that we’ve found a way (and a reason) to be more productive… tricks or not.