FOCUS: Can You Measure the Hard Things?

English: Red button.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We all want things to be easy. And it’s not just business, American or Western Society that defaults to easy. While I still worked at Microsoft, one of my managers got our entire team “Easy Buttons.” You pressed the Big Red Button and a voice said, “That Was Easy!”
If only….
We have a few things working against us:

  • The problems and challenges we face today (business, societal and personal) are complex with no simple answers. The kind of effort required to tackle them can’t be splintered into micro-moments of attention (better known as “multi-tasking”…). We need big blocks of time, and lots of them, to work through these things.
  • Our culture prizes Fast, Immediate, Responsive, 24/7/365 over taking the time to gain the ability to learn hard things more quickly and produce at an elite level (so we move past “good enough” to “WOW!”).
  • The difficulty of measuring the complex over the simple (an example – “audience engagement” versus a Facebook page “Like”).
  • The tendency to answer a simpler question when confronted with a difficult one (more on that shortly…).
 As business owners and entrepreneurs, what does this mean?

Starting and running a business has never been easy. Doing it today means juggling and prioritizing things, including doing the Actual Work for your clients and customers, in a way that makes sense for your business, but allows you the space to both “take care of business” AND spend the time doing the Deep Work required to keep your business forging ahead and innovating.  Too much time on either side, and being flexible to it, can spell the demise of your business dream.

What brings this to mind for me is a recent article by Valeria Maltoni entitled Knowledge Work and the Metric Black Hole  and some other reading I did last year, especially Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  These works, plus the study that came out a while ago noting that our attention span has shrunk to less than that of a goldfish, point to a real problem for us.

Shutting down distractions when we work would seem to be a simple way to get to at least some of this problem, but we are so committed to immediate reaction to any stimuli (SMS notifications, email “PINGs”, phone calls, Open Door Policies, and, because this kind of Deep Work is hard, we allow almost anything to distract us…). Just because it’s simple does not make it easy to implement. Try it sometime: shut down your mail, turn off your phone’s ringer AND vibration, close the door and put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on it, and, having picked a particularly meaty problem, work on it for just a half hour…solid.

How do you feel at the end of that time? Like you REALLY made some headway and accomplished something?! Feel like you’ve added some value? Cool! Mastery takes work….hard work. Now, how do you measure that time spent over a half hour of answering email and reading Facebook posts? The difference is the value. Just time and the number of THINGS accomplished over that time are poorer metrics than real value.

Metrics can be a trap to us in business, too. Easy still dominates our first impulses in this area (as I work with my clients, we have that “Likes” vs. “relationship building” discussion while setting up measures of success for their strategies and campaigns….). Easy may be popular and, well, easy, but measuring the complex and valuable is much more difficult, and sometimes inexact. This is where we tend to answer the tough questions by swapping them for easier questions. Kahneman calls this substituting questions. He writes, “If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, [System 1] will find a related question that is easier and will answer it.” He also calls it the “Mental shotgun”. He then lays out a few samples that demonstrate the Hard, or TARGET, Questions and the Easier, or HEURISTIC, Questions that we actually ask ourselves that are imprecise and impose an easier load on our minds. Here are two of the examples:

  • TARGET – How much would you contribute to save an endangered species?
  • HEURISTIC – How much emotion do I feel when I think of Dying Dolphins?
  • TARGET – How should financial advisers who prey on the elderly be punished?
  • HEURISTIC – How much anger do I feel when I think of financial predators?
Doing the work to discover and utilize the intricate measures (if there really are some for your problem…) that will actually show success and progress will likely take time and require a lot of work and adjustment.

If your mind is making these simplifications with tough questions, how can you fight back? I believe that Deep Work can help focus on the original target question. By allowing the time and cognitive focus you as a business owner need in order to make solid decisions and add greater value to your business, as well as allow you to exercise those parts of your mind that will increase your mastery in your areas of expertise AND allow you to gain greater facility in their use, you can only enhance your value.

And isn’t that what you want to do for your clients, customers, and business, anyway?

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