Too Many Tasks For Any Person to Juggle
Your out-of-control email inbox, back-t0-back zoom meetings, and your past due employee reviews - not to mention the voice mail that you might have let just fill up so that it can no longer accept messages - all tell the same story.
It's really, really hard to keep up with tasks.
The task time ends up overwriting the thinking time. And the hyperkinetic task activity also leads to stack overload - in other words it often impairs the cognitive flow that's critical to see connections and develop critical insights.
There's less time to read - and very little capacity to creatively index and process the information you do encounter.
That's a problem for any worker.
It's a bigger problem for knowledge workers.
And it's a critical problem for senior leadership.
In a rapidly changing environment, my experience is that senior leaders should probably allocate >20% of their time to medium and long-term strategy and trend related work. Some large part of it must be solitary, contemplative time.
Too Much Information For Any Mind to Manage
Cybersecurity threats, digital transformation, changing buyer behaviors, competitive threats, workforce and talent management issues, accounting and tax optimization questions, R&D roadmap, etc. etc.
You've got a massive list of responsibilities and accountabilities.
Sure, you have senior managers to help track them, but as you have questions and ideas while commuting; when a trade association colleague mentions something interesting; when a key customer explains a certain trend impacting them - you want to be informed, conversant, and familiar enough with material to manage and make informed decisions.
You're also the only one with responsibility over all the departments - you see how a technology insight would impact product marketing, R&D, forecasting, sales, procurement and HR. There are so many intersections - and they are so, so hard to track.
So here's the normal workflow - you see something at an industry event, read something in The Economist that strikes you as applicable from another industry, highlight an idea from a Harvard Business Review article, find an insight in a recommended book, etc. - and you may make a note and you may shoot a message or email to one of your managers....and then you hope you remember it when it's applicable.
But because you're so deluged with data, so task saturated and have so little thinking time - guess what....it's likely gone, and certainly going to be absent context.
There's interesting cognitive research that has found that:
- keeping "must remember" items in mind crowds out other important thoughts
- memory storage strength is common, but recall strength depends on your information processing and knowledge management frameworks
Further, you probably have carried early experiences through to how you process information today. Physical file folders and cabinets are the analog to the digital systems you probably use. In fact thinking in context of filing vs. searching is something I've written about in the context of digital marketing and website design.
This is real world. I see leadership struggling with it often.
They know instinctively that they need to curate diverse info, and that many bits of info apply to their businesses in various ways. Yet the reality is that there's no good way to accumulate the info: to capture key points contemporaneously; to index them relationally (connected to all the threads and ideas to which they relate); and to recall them later, both in aggregate, and in context, to stimulate thought around a topic and to provide a reference for contemplation and discussion.
And in a self-limiting cycle, therefore, the effort becomes too extreme, the results too tenuous, and the benefits too ephemeral - and so the potential antidote to hyper taskism is itself overwhelmed by tasks.
This inevitably leads to mean regression and mediocrity.
Recent statistics from the NACD (National Association of Corporate Directors) 2019-2020 Survey of Private Company Governance highlight the challenge.
- Only 1:6 firms under $1B participate in scenario planning exercises
- Only half believe the board has an adequate understanding of risk to provide effective governance
- ⅔ report that their companies can no longer count on extending their current strategy over the next five years
- 50% haven’t tested management’s assumptions about key strategic bets
Leaders often just too busy running the business.
That's a problem.
It's one that I fight myself. And I've experimented with scores of tools (Google Docs, Evernote, Things, and countless others) and methods. But none quite solve for everything.
Less COVID travel has had the benefit of less harried activity. That's let me focus on this challenge. And I'm excited.
I've seen a light at the proverbial end of the tunnel now though, and want to share a tool and methodology that might be a game changer.
Zettelkasten, Note Taking, Roam Research
As I thrashed around, I learned of Roam Research in passing in through David Perell's blog.
I was too intimated to try it first.
It's a bit overwhelming (the language, credentials and facility of other users, technical GUI, the "cult" community, and boldly aspirational premise,) not super intuitive, and clearly has a learning curve. (For example, the image above is an example of the automatically generated knowledge graph Roam creates as you build your content.)
But I sensed something was there - I mean "metacognition" (what they call it) is a big tease!
So after going back to the site and looking at subscriptions several times, I took the plunge as a "Believer" - making a monetary commitment that I hoped would solidify my workflow/habit commitment.
I dove in, discovered they had onboarding office hours, attended a couple of those and dug in deeper....and found myself heading down a productive rabbit hole into Zettelkasten (elegant in its simplicity,) the book How To Take Smart Notes, and learning from a very engaged and impressive Roam users community.
Nearly a month in now, my workflow has changed. Roam is the home for:
- daily accountability checklists
- short, medium, and long-term tasks tracking
- maintaining, updating and nurturing strategic plans
- cataloging random ideas and linking to clients, projects, themes
- tracking reading and capturing reading notes
- collecting hobby information (now I'm intrigued by getting an amateur radio license)
- contemporaneously working on multiple blog and podcast ideas in parallel
- created a multi-user environment for networked thought among a crisis leadership idea exchange group I created early during the pandemic
- exploring ways to use this to create additional value for clients in my work with them and in their work with their markets
- and more
I haven't begun to understand or tap the power of the tool, but I am slowly feeling a sense of ease that critical ideas and insights aren't slipping away - even more so that they're readily available to progressively develop them.
And the most interesting part it that it all builds from a very simple model - writing a daily note. Just writing in bullets each day and linking to other bullets, topics, themes and tags inline as you go.
In other words, it's not the software per se, but rather the community of thinkers and frameworks for thought and capture that it facilitates.
The Payoff - and Why It Might Pertain to You
So why am I sharing this?
The biggest challenge I observe most executives wrestling with is task and information overload.
Absent a framework to capture ideas and create a natural structure for associating them in ways which will reveal connections and opportunities, they simply plod along doing more tomorrow of what they did yesterday.
That's not to diminish the huge importance and value of relentless, diligent execution.
But, in a world of rapid change we need systems to uncover trends and ideas, vet them for relevance and significance, understand their application to our future business, and build products, services and strategy around them.
And the area in which I see this most acutely reflected is in revenue growth. The models and methods for marketing and sales in most industrial manufacturing firms are antiquated. And ineffective.
Solid strategy, rapid evolution and adaptation are not happening in many firms.
And knowledge management is the biggest barrier.
It's a challenge for every company to solve.
Interested in digging into Roam a bit?
Roam founder Conor White-Sullivan's YouTube channel has lots of info on use cases and the background philosophy.