Managing Oneself

Peter Drucker is arguably the most influential thinker on management. One of his best-known works is the 18,000-word book ‘Managing Oneself‘ published in 2008 from a 1999 Harvard Business Review article. The article now be found in HBRs ’10 must Reads: The Essentials’, the collection of the 10 most important articles published in their 100-year history. The book’s core idea is that you need to cultivate a deep self-awareness to achieve ‘true and lasting excellence.

Drucker presents a series of questions you can answer about yourself to gain the self-awareness needed to ‘build a life of excellence:

  1. What are my strengths?
  2. How do I work?
  3. How do I learn?
  4. What are my values?
  5. Where do I belong?
  6. What can I contribute?

The most difficult of these questions is the first. With over 180 cognitive biases that affect our ability to process reality, such as confirmation bias where we look for evidence that justified our existing beliefs, how do you truly know what your strengths are? Drucker’s recommended method is feedback analysis; each time you make a key decision write down the outcome you expect and then return in a couple of months and compare the actual results with your expectations. By assessing patterns using this method you will be able to assess your strengths from where you can create desired outcomes. You can then spend time improving these strengths as the most effective route to high performance. Creating a series of feedback analyses can take two to three years for meaningful patterns to emerge, so what can we do immediately while collecting these experiments?

Success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves-their strengths, their values, and how they best perform.

Peter Drucker

How do I perform?

My current focus is on the second and third questions of Drucker’s questions. A set of sub-questions are presented to help us get to:

  • In what ways do I work best?
  • Do I process information most effectively by reading it, or by hearing others discuss it?
  • Do I accomplish the most by working with other people, or working alone?
  • Do I perform best while making decisions, or while advising others on key matters? 
  • Do I perform best when things get stressful, or in highly predictable environments?

By answering these questions you can start to understand what kinds of productivity techniques and tools might suit you best. I know for instance that I can consume and process information through listening. I am often able to recall things I have heard better than those I have read, although this means I often have to avoid listening to things like the radio when I am driving home from work and processing the day’s information and decisions. I have set up techniques to support this including preferring listening to audiobooks over reading them or listening to the week’s economist rather than reading the paper version.  

An interesting point though is how much of overall performance is improved by foundational skills and how much is open to preference and styles? Time blocking for example, where blocks of time, usually in 30-60 minute intervals are allocated to specific tasks, is widely seen as the best method to organise a day. Many methods of note-taking from GTD to Zettelkasten, and the ‘Building a Second Brain’ method all base themselves on the premise that the brain is built to process information rather than store it. Which of these ideas are universal for improved performance that forms the starting point for developing exceptional ability?

How do I learn?

I did not enjoy school nor did I develop any good learning habits or achieve anything exceptional academically. I did however get obsessive with other pursuits such as music production, where I did much better. Drucker suggests that people that excel at learning through writing tend to do poorly at school as most classes are not set up to exploid this approach. One of the reasons I set up this blog is I have a google drive full of documents I have used to organise my thoughts and when learning something new, I usually reach for a pen to organise the idea in my own way. Drucker suggests that there are multiple ways to learn including readers, listeners, talkers, and writers and says that most of us know how we learn best but rarely act on this, and so do not reach high performance. 

As a teacher, I know there are definitely foundational skills and techniques that everyone can benefit from using more. Encoding, spaced repetition and active recall are all seen as highly effective methods of rote learning. Kolb’s cycle presents four stages of experiencial learning; planning, doing, reflecting, and learning but perhaps the most effective way we do each of these stages can vary from person to person and within different contexts. Bloom’s two sigma problem suggests that 1:1 and very small group tutoring produces results two standard deviations better than other methods and John Hattie’s invisible learning presents a meta-analysis of the meaningful research on teaching methods.

 My actions for gaining self-awareness for excellent performance

With my MBA graduation over and the immediate actions complete for my new job, it is time for me to refocus on my performance. I am working on a number of methods to improve my understanding of my strengths but what can I do to improve my ways of working and learning? 

First, I need to work on my foundation skills and update my productivity and learning systems. Then, I need to build on these foundations with more advanced personalised methods that fit the way I work and learn best. Finally, I need to use these two sets of skills on a daily basis. 

Some resources I am using:

Mental toughness and sports psychology

Dr Graham Jones studies elite performance in both high archives in both sports and business. Jones’s work as a sports psychologist to British Olympic champions and later a business-performance consultant believes that there are significant parallels between achievement in both areas. Those that reach the top are made, not born. He believes that the main obstacle to success is a ‘self-limiting mindset’. Jones states in his 2008 Harvard Business Review article that the one defining trait both sets of performers share is mental toughness; they manage pressure, are goal-oriented, and self-driven. 

Elite performers in both arenas thrive on pressure; they excel when the heat is turned up. Their rise to the top is the result of very careful planning—of setting and hitting hundreds of small goals. Elite performers use competition to hone their skills, and they reinvent themselves continually to stay ahead of the pack. Finally, whenever they score big wins, top performers take time to celebrate their victories.

Dr Graham Jones

Behaviours of elite performers

  1. Love the pressure
  2. Fixate on the long term
  3. Use the competition
  4. Reinvent themselves
  5. Celebrate the Victories
  6. Will to win

High performers are comfortable with high-pressure situations as they are focused on their excellence and what they can control while compartmentalizing everything else; they can also switch off by having other focuses in their life. Meticulous short term planning is used to achieve long term goals in small steps, mapping out exactly what is needed in each area that affects performance and reach the ultimate goal. 

Elite performers seek out and train with others that push themselves and challenge others to new levels of effort and output. They require constant constructive feedback to assess where they are and where they need to improve their performance. 

High achieving individuals recognize the importance of celebrating their wins and spend significant time analyzing the positive and negative elements of their performance to build confidence and expertise, repeating what worked and adapting what did not. They have cultivated a deep desire to compete and win that drives them to pick themselves up after things don’t go to plan and get back to training.

How to develop mental toughness

  1. Set a big long-term goal, create an outline of how you will get there, and then meticulously plan the next steps.
  2. Have a firm answer as to what this goal is essential to you, and use this to develop a deep will to do what is needed to achieve it.
  3. Focus on self-improvement in the areas that will help you achieve the goal and keep your mental energy in these areas.
  4. Find ways of receiving constant feedback on your performance in the areas you identified as critical, spend extra effort on where you are falling short, and recognize and repeat what is working.
  5. Have a reward in mind for achieving the long-term goal as a symbol of the work and commitment put in to achieve it.