Ten years ago, nearly to the day, I was given a promotion from starting-level engineer to upper management. Honestly, as exciting as the promotion was, I was incredibly overwhelmed. I felt that I didn’t have enough time to do everything that I needed/wanted to do and I began to feel that I was in over my head. Something had to give.
I’d heard of productivity books being helpful, so I decided to give it a try. I was hoping that the books would teach me how to get more done in less time. Not only did they help me achieve that goal, but other aspects of my performance as well.
After reading 100 productivity books, I have found that there are 15 key elements to staying productive and being efficient. I have compiled a list of my findings to help you to be as productive as you can be.
1. Don’t wait for others to set your deadlines, set them for yourself
While growing up with our structured school system, students are used to being given deadlines and working to meet them. This causes a problem when we suddenly don’t have a deadline to work towards. We tend to get lazy because there is no sense of urgency. This is why overachievers in school tend to be average in the real world, as they don’t have deadlines to work towards once no one sets it for them.
Successful people don’t wait, they set deadlines for their personal goals. While meeting external deadlines (those that are given to you) helps you to survive and meet the bare minimum, internal deadlines (those that you give yourself) make you push through your boundaries. The key is to be proactive, not passive.
2. Keep track of your time like you do your bank account
We like to think that we know ourselves well. But when asked to recall, we can’t remember what we did at this time on this day last week. Time is the most valuable resource we have. We need to track it like we do our bank accounts, because as the old saying goes, time is money. You can always earn more money, but you can never get back wasted time.
Keep a time-sheet to record how much time you spend on tasks. Even everyday/personal tasks. You’ll be surprised to see how much time you waste on certain things.
3. Don’t focus on your weaknesses, work on your strengths instead
It’s common practice to improve your weaknesses. But that shouldn’t be your primary focus. The most important thing is to first improve your strengths. Having a strength means that you already have a foundation for it (otherwise it wouldn’t be a strength) and acquired the basic skills. You should already have a solid idea of what to improve. The difference is that this growth will be exponential versus improving anything else.
Weaknesses cause limitations because you’re starting from the ground up. Everything is so new and it can be difficult to identify what works. But once you find those weak points, you can utilize your strengths (which you’ve improved) to help turn these weaknesses into an asset.
4. Rank tasks by importance, not the order you received them
Every task does not hold the same weight of importance as others might. Always ask yourself: What needs to be done right away? Regularly rank your tasks, and get the vital ones out of the way.
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that because a task came earlier, it is more important than the following tasks. Some tasks have a leveraging effect, so even if they arise later than other tasks, it should be prioritized to be finished right away.
Example: You are planning to brush up on your presentation skills, so you read 20 self-improvement books to reach your goal. Then you decide to read books on speed reading. The best move would have been to read the speed reading books first, to make reading your self-improvement books quicker and more effective.
“You can’t eat the whole pizza at once.” Now while this statement may come off as a challenge (I’m sure some of you could scarf down a whole pizza with no issue) the point is that we think we can handle enormous tasks on our own. Taking on too much at once can be discouraging, and will ultimately lessen your motivation.
The solution: break down big tasks into smaller, digestible tasks to create order and relieve some of the stress.
6. Smart people know when to delegate
Don’t feel obligated to do every little thing yourself. Doing more doesn’t mean doing better. In fact, if you have too much on your plate you are very likely to make careless mistakes because you’re trying to do too much at once. Recognize which tasks can be passed on to others so that you can focus on more challenging and important tasks.
7. Use your brain for thinking, not remembering
Information is unlimited, it’s impossible to remember everything. There’s a popular saying, “You have already forgotten more than you already know.” Meaning, there is just too much information to retain it all through memory alone. There’s a variety of tools that we can use to organize our thoughts and ideas for us, such as: computers, notebooks, our phones, etc.
8. Review your productivity at the end of the day
At the end of your day, take the time to reflect what you have accomplished, and what could be improved.
When we don’t reflect, we rely only on natural growth. Successful people concentrate on deliberate practice, where they actively identify and focus on things to improve. Even if you feel that you’ve done a job well done, still consider what could be done in terms of improvement. There is always something!
9. Sometimes cutting tasks is better than adding them
Make it a practice to regularly clear out what isn’t useful to you. This can be manual tasks, physical items, or even relationships. Think about it, physical clutter doesn’t only take up space, but it inhibits our performance as well because we have the physical impression of overload. I know that I personally need to have an organized work space, or I just can’t concentrate.
Just like we need to de-clutter our surroundings, we need to do the same with our digital space, only making room for what it important and deleting the rest. Your device will work more efficiently, and you don’t have to sift through endless folders and files to find whatever you’re trying to access. Less is more.
10. Estimate time for your task
Sometimes this is something that we slack off on, going into a project without considering how much time it is going to take us. To help with this, follow the 2 minute rule. If it can be completed within two minutes, get it out of the way first.
Neglecting to estimate your time can cause you to waste time; because you do not have a real goal in mind or deadline you are trying to meet. If you don’t set a standard, then you won’t know which aspects need to be improved upon and tweaked for efficiency when the task is repeated.
Example: You are making an avocado salad. Before beginning, how long do you think it is going to take? 30 minutes? 15? 3? When we consider the task at hand and the time needed to complete it, we start planning on how to do it more efficiently.
11. Stretch your creativity no matter what your job is
We need a bit of creativity for every task that we complete, no matter how mundane it may seem. Creativity is not always a naturally given talent, but a muscle that can be trained. Perhaps you’re not the Renaissance man (or woman) of the century, but you can drum up some out-of-the-box ideas along with the best of them. We need a bit of creativity in order to step up our efficiency.
This could relate to tasks such as time management or production procedures. You need to exercise your creativity to make an already existing practice even better.
12. Know when to stop as tasks tend to devalue overtime
When the productivity of a project beings to diminish, you need to know when it’s time to call it quits. Tasks tend to devalue overtime. The longer a task is taking, the less likely it is to be successful. When it starts to seem that progress is declining, it’s time to cut your losses and reevaluate your game plan.
Example: When a business realizes that they are losing more and more money each month, they need to change their strategy.
13. Always assume that you don’t know as much as you may think you know
Because the truth is, most people don’t know much. There’s an endless supply of information relating to just about anything. Never be overly satisfied, always know that there is room for improvement. Just because you have a good thing, it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be better. Always continue to strive for more and look for new insights. You’re really only the best if you look for new ways to grow. And most importantly, don’t allow yourself to be secretly arrogant. Or outwardly arrogant. Stay humble. You will gain much more respect from your peers and your followers this way.
14. Identify your instant gratification and ditch it
You might think that you don’t have an instant gratification trigger, but everyone has one. This is something that you don’t really need to work for, but fills you with enough confidence and feeling of productivity that you don’t feel you need to do anymore. What is yours? Identify yours, and overcome it.
Example: Your boss is always very complimentary, nearly to the point of being coddled. Since you’re always hearing that you’re doing a good job, you feel like you don’t need to do more. But in order to improve, you should strive to do more to get to the next level of excellence.
15. Start with the big picture, work down to the details
Identify the ultimate goal at hand, and start from the beginning. Then, break down every task in sequential order that needs to be achieved in order to reach this ultimate goal. Double check your tasks at hand, ask yourself how it fits into the big picture and if it is really necessary. Could you time be better spent on a different task? Don’t just work mindlessly. Always consider the big picture and the moves you are making towards it.
As humans, we typically operate on cognitive autopilot. We rarely stop and reflect on how we interpret information and create mental models which replicate our perception of reality.
But when our mental models fail to match reality, we simply ignore reality and operate throughout the day on implicit assumptions. These are not conscious choices. Our mental models allow us a simple way to cope with reality, yet we fail to confront reality when it is different than our mental model. Essentially, we have unknowingly created a ready-made default mechanism. 
So, what can we do?
We must first take time to reflect on our critical thinking skills. By simply understanding how you interpret and perceive information differently than everyone else is a great first step. To truly upgrade your critical thinking skills, you must examine how thoughts arise in your mind and how they got there.
Critical thinking is about asking yourself how you make choices. We can choose to believe something we hear or see; however, why do we choose to believe something we hear or see?
As a Red Team Member in the U.S. Army, I will explain how I upgrade my critical thinking skills using Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop as a framework for critical thinking. I will then demonstrate practical ways to upgrade your critical thinking skills for a sharper mind using tools and techniques from the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS) Center for Applied Critical Thinking (also known as the Red Team school) and The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook (also known as The Red Team Handbook).
Critical thinking can be explained in a number of ways. Let’s quickly examine a few definitions:
“Critical thinking is a process, the goal of which is to make reasonable decisions about what to believe and what to do.” – Robert Enis
“Critical thinking means developing an ever better worldview and using it well in all aspects of your life. The essence of critical thinking is questioning and arguing logically.” – Gary Jason
“Critical thinking is searching for hidden assumptions, noticing various facets, unraveling different strands, and evaluating what is most significant. It implies conscious, deliberate inquiry, and especially it implies adopting a skeptical state of mind.” – Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau
To me, critical thinking is as follows:
“Critical thinking is observing the world with an open and skeptical mindset with the goal of exploring all alternatives objectively (as much as possible). It is our ability to orient our mental models to view reality through an emotionless lens seeking the truth by questioning our own assumptions and deconstructing arguments logically. It is our ability to identify gaps and uncover what is missing to improve our quality of decisions. Finally, it is our ability to unravel different strands of significant information through a continuous stream of feedback so that we continuously destroy and create new mental models allowing us to act closer to reality.” – Dr. Jamie Schwandt
Critical Thinking Framework: OODA Loop
I use John Boyd’s OODA Loop as a framework for critical thinking. It is similar to Swarm Intelligence, where we use simple rules to allow the collective intelligence to emerge. The simple rules are Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.
The OODA Loop is a high-speed decision making and feedback process in four stages: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. The OODA Loop is a continuous feedback loop where the objective is to go through the loop faster than your opponent.
I use simple rules provided within the OODA Loop to assist me in speeding up my critical and creative thinking abilities. However, do not confuse the word “simple” with “simplistic” as the OODA Loop uses simple rules within a complex system (which is exactly what the OODA Loop is).
The key to the loop is feedback. The OODA Loop is similar to Double-Loop Learning, where the goal is to modify decision-making in light of new experience.
Double-Loop Learning is the first loop uses goals or decision making rules, the second loop enables their modification… hence, double-loop.
Chris Argyris writes about Double-Loop Learning in Teaching Smart People How To Learn,
“A thermostat that automatically turns on the heat whenever the temperature in a room drops below 68 degree is a good example of single-loop learning. A thermostat that could ask why am I set to 68 degree? and then explore whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room would be engaged in double-loop learning.
The overarching guide for my use of the OODA Loop is as follows:
I will talk about this more in the How-To Guide: Tools to Apply the Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop section below.
It’s about seeking truth. Here we should seek to follow a concept introduced by Immanuel Kant as a way of evaluating motivations for actions – called the Categorical Imperative. Kant defines a categorical imperative as an absolute or an unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself. For example, “Act only according to the maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” For more information, visit the Categorical Imperative.
This is essentially solving problems by working backwards. A simple example of this method is working backwards to solve a math problem.
For example, solve the following problem: “I think of a number and add three to it, multiply the result by 2, subtract 4 and divide by 7. The number I end up with is 2. What was the number I first thought of?” To solve, read the problem backwards. You start with: 2 x 7 = 14. Then take 14 + 4 = 18. From there take 18 / 2 = 9. Then take 9 – 3 = 6. Finally, the number you first thought of was 6.
Moreover, Reasoning Backwards can be viewed through the lens of deduction. I prefer deduction over induction and here is why:
An example of Inductive Reasoning is: this raven is black, that raven is black, all ravens are black.
Deductive Reasoning is: All ravens are black, that raven is black, therefore it is black.
We make deductions from laws to see what should happen and then experiment to see if our prediction was right. Think about it this way… to test whether a burner is hot, we must touch the burner first using Inductive Reasoning; however, if we were to use Deductive Reasoning, we would first predict the burner to be hot and would realize there is not need to touch it.
One last benefit of Reasoning Backwards is that it forces our linear and logical mind to catch things we wouldn’t normally catch. For example, read the following sentence:
After reading this sentence, you will realize that the the brain doesn’t recognize a second ‘the’.
Now read the sentence again, this time read it backwards. Did you notice that you missed the second ‘the’?
The UFMCS uses this as the single most important idea to enable critical thinking. For example, prior to taking on an issue, we should first think independently and reflectively, then write down our thoughts (which assists us in shaping and refining them), then share them in a disciplined manner. This takes us from divergence to convergence.
Boyd described a thought experiment in a presentation called Strategic Game of ? and ?. Through the process of Destructive Deduction (analyze and pull apart mental concepts into discrete parts) and Creative Induction (using these elements to form new mental concepts) we can create a new mental model that more closely aligns with reality.
Part 1 of his question:
“Imagine that you are on a ski slope with other skiers…that you are in Florida riding in an outboard motorboat, maybe even towing water-skiers. Imagine that you are riding a bicycle on a nice spring day. Imagine that you are a parent taking your son to a department store and that you notice he is fascinated by the toy tractors or tanks with rubber caterpillar treads.”
“Now imagine that you pull the skis off but you are still on the ski slope. Imagine also that you remove the outboard motor from the motorboat, and you are no longer in Florida. And from the bicycle you remove the handle-bar and discard the rest of the bike. Finally, you take off the rubber treads from the toy tractor or tanks. This leaves only the following separate pieces: skis, outboard motor, handlebars and rubber treads.”
What do you imagine could be created using the remaining parts? A Snowmobile
Let’s now turn our attention to the four simple rules within the OODA Loop.
The Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop: Simple Rules to Guide You
Think of how we use sensors and gather information. In an ant colony, this is where ants shoot pheromones to signal others when they have found food.
Here we are detecting events within our environment and identifying change (or lack thereof). This could also be identified as Locate or Perceive (think swarming tactics or artificial intelligence).
Find out what is really there.
Observe first and gather data.
Identify the uncommon and common things. As Sherlock Holmes famously said, “What is out of common is a guide.” A great video on this point is The most unlikely threat from the hit movie Men in Black – watch the following video:
Begin with a blank and open mind.
Remember that there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.
Key questions to ask:
What are we being asked?
What do we know?
Key tools to use:
6 Words. This is simply writing a short and precise phrase summarizing your thinking into a set number of words.
Key assumptions check. We all start with assumptions and it is extremely important to be aware of our own. Understanding this will allow us to explain the logic of an argument and expose faulty logic. It will also help us simulate thinking about a problem and uncover hidden links between factors. Let’s examine some key questions to ask here: 1) How much confidence do you have with this assumption?; 2) What explains your confidence with this assumption?; 3) What must exist for this assumption to be valid?; and 4) If this assumption proves wrong, will this change your line of thinking about the issue?
Analysis + Synthesis. By breaking a concept or problem apart (analysis) we develop knowledge; yet, it’s when we piece the parts back together (synthesis) and create something new that we develop understanding or wisdom.
Onion Model. Hofstede’s Onion Model is a great tool to find values at the core. It is a great way to prompt better questions, look at something or someone or some group from multiple perspectives, and expose ignorance.
neXt – Innovative Framework. Professor Ramesh Raskar, head of MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture Research Group, created an easy-to-use framework for inventing the future – right now. Watch the following video:
Think of a hypothesis like you would when putting a puzzle together, where you are making predictions then testing those predictions.
Devils Advocacy. Here you are trying to prove the opposite and disprove the hypothesis. Essentially, you are trying to prove the limitations.
Alternative Futures Analysis
Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH) (see below)
The Value of Possible. Here is a logical system incorporating elements of language. In this method, we have three truth values: False, True, and Possible. Logical connective rules: True is p, Possible is q, and False has no value. This allows for something to be fuzzy (not clearly black or white… true or false) but could still be true.
Think of testing and retesting a hypothesis.
According to Boyd, actions should be rapid, surprising, ambiguous, and ever changing. This could be identified as Disperse or Learn.
Carry out your decision (or selected action) while the opponent is still observing the last action.
As Sherlock Holmes said, “Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.”
Develop quick “fly-like” reactions.
Use simple rules to guide your actions or the actions of a group.
Find the desired path. For example, watch how routes on a college campus naturally form. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we allowed these to naturally form then simply pave those locations. For more on this idea, watch the following video Find and Pave the Desired Path:
Key questions to ask:
What did I learn?
What type of feedback did I receive?
What type of feedback am I still receiving (we are continuously receiving feedback)?
What can I do with this new information as my OODA Loop begins again?
The UFMCS provides a powerful framework for deconstructing an argument.
What is the argument? Here the argument = problem (or premise) + reasons + conclusion
Check to make sure the right problem is identified and examine the point of view of the other person.
Search for and ask for clarification of ambiguous words.
Look for value conflicts and check key assumptions. More specifically, look for prescriptive assumptions (statement made on the way things should be) and descriptive assumptions (statement made on the way things are).
Check the evidence provided. Does the person use personal experience, potentially deceptive statistics (use numbers without percentages – percentages without numbers), appeal to authorities, faulty analogies, intuition, etc.
Is there another plausible hypotheses which might explain the situation?
Are there any other conclusions you can draw from the argument?
What implications does accepting the argument pose?
2. The 4 Agreements
Another great way the U.S. Army Red Team community upgrades their critical thinking ability is through the following four agreements:
Don’t make assumptions.
Don’t take anything personal.
Be impeccable with your words.
Always do your best.
Finally, I recommend using the following mnemonic. I created this tool to assist me as I move through the Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop. Additionally, I recommend writing this down on a note-card and keeping a copy with you at all times.
Think like a Scout – the drive to see what’s really there.
In the following video Why you think you’re right-even if you’re wrong, Julia Galef examines the motivation between two mindsets (Scout mindset vs Soldier mindset) and how they shape the way we interpret information:
Galef explains that Scouts are curious and are more likely to feel pleasure when they learn new information. She says it’s like an itch to solve a puzzle. We should strive to develop a Scout Mindset. Let’s examine qualities Scout’s possess:
The Scout’s job is not to attack or defend, but to understand – to go out, map the terrain and identify potential obstacles.
Scout’s are intrigued when they encounter something that contradicts their expectations.
More likely to think it’s virtuous to test your own beliefs.
They do not say someone is weak for simply changing their mind.
They are grounded; meaning their self-worth isn’t tied to how right or wrong they are about an argument.
They are proud (and not ashamed) when they notice they might be wrong about something.
They are intrigued (and not defensive) when they encounter information that contradicts their beliefs.
They yearn not to defend their beliefs, but to see the world as clearly as they possibly can.
Above all, the Scout seeks to know what’s really there.
Find the Dog who isn’t barking.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze, we are presented with a mystery of the disappearance of a famous racehorse the night prior to a race and the murder of the horse’s trainer. Mike Skotnicki describes the story about The Dog that Didn’t Bark:
“The dog that didn’t bark. What we can learn from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about using the absence of expected facts.” – Mike Skotnicki
Sherlock Holmes solves the mystery in part by recognizing that no one he spoke to in his investigation remarked that they had heard barking from the watchdog during the night.
Gregory (Scotland Yard detective), “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Sherlock Holmes, “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory, “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Sherlock Holmes, “That was the curious incident.”
The fact that the dog did not bark when we would have expected it to while the horse was stolen led Holmes to the conclusion that the criminal was not a stranger to the dog, but someone the dog recognized; thus, would not cause the dog to bark.
What would have to exist for something to be true?
Here we can use a UFMCS Red Team tool called What If? Analysis. This tool assumes an event has already happened with potential impact (positive or negative) and explains how it might play out. This is a powerful technique for challenging a closed mindset by shifting the focus from whether an event could occur to how it might happen.
Clearly state the conventional line assuming the event has happened, then step back and consider what alternative outcomes are too important to dismiss, even if unlikely.
Select triggering events that allowed the event to happen.
Develop a chain of argumentation.
Reason backwards from the event in concrete ways (specify what must occur at each stage).
Choose one or more plausible pathways.
Develop and monitor a list of indicators or observables for each scenario that would assist in detecting the beginning of the event.
Another technique you can use here is The Reductio ad Absurdum. This is a simple yet powerful tool.
Assume a statement to be true and see what conclusions you can discern from it. If you find you get a contradiction, you know the initial statement is false as contradictions are always false.
It allows you to determine if a statement is false by showing the contradiction.
Here we can use a combination of tools and techniques.
For example, if you have a team or group of people, you could use what’s called a Premortem and/or Postmortem Analysis. This is an application of mental stimulation and is a great tool for Group Think Mitigation. We could use the 5-Why technique after we have asked what happened. We could also use Algorithmic Thinking where we perform an If-And-Then series of questions.
Let’s combine the three and see how this can be used:
Assume an event has happened or after an event has happened – use 5-Why to identify causes as to why this event happened.
Generate a list of reasons for the event with the following simple rules: 1) The more ideas the better; 2) Build on other peoples ideas using them as prompts for your own; 3) Wacky ideas are fine (and sometimes preferred).
Ask a series of If-And-Then questions:
IF an Active Shooter is spotted AND appropriate signals are in place THEN we should be able to act/respond quicker.
This can also be used with Propositional Calculus. For example, “If you are a bird, then you have wings,” could be rephrased as, “You cannot be a bird and not have wings.” It is a proposition using one connective such as: IF-Then. It can then be transformed into an expression using the other connectives “and” and “not” without changing the validity of the statement.
Ask what evidence is not being seen, but would be expected for a hypothesis to be true.
Conduct an Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH). The objective is to identify alternative explanations (hypotheses) and evaluate the evidence that will disconfirm rather than confirm the hypotheses. This is how I reason backwards.
Brainstorm and list all possible hypotheses (no matter how improbable they may seem). List the hypotheses first then the evidence (think deductive reasoning). You can list the evidence first, then the hypotheses if you prefer (think inductive reasoning).
List all significant evidence and arguments relevant to each hypotheses.
Reason backwards by creating a divergent systems diagram with each hypotheses from right to left (to mimic backwards reasoning)
Start to converge by preparing a matrix listing the hypotheses across the top with each piece of evidence down the side.
Determine if each piece of evidence is consistent, inconsistent, or non applicable.
Refine the matrix by reconsidering each hypotheses. Here you can even add new information if applicable.
Focus on disproving each hypotheses rather than proving one. Tally your evidence that are inconsistent and consistent to see which hypotheses are the weakest and strongest (you can also identify this using your systems diagram… +/- for strong and weak connections).
Ask what evidence is not being seen, but would be expected for a given hypotheses to be true. Ask if denial and/or deception is a possibility.
Identify and monitor indicators that would be consistent and inconsistent with each hypotheses.
Where are the Pattern (or location) of bullet holes NOT located?
Statistician Abraham Wald was tasked with helping the Allies decide where to add armor to bombers during World War II. The Allies hoped extra protection would help minimize bomber losses due to enemy anti-aircraft fire. They thought the answer was obvious and the bombers returning from missions showed them where to put the extra armor. However, Wald disagreed. He explained the damage actually revealed the locations that needed the least additional armor. In essence, it’s where the bombers could be hit and still survive the flight home.
This is an example of selection or survivorship bias, where we typically only consider information that’s presented to us and ignore information that is absent, yet might just be significantly relevant. For example, the locations on the bombers without bullet holes might just be the location to reinforce.
Finally, we should be extremely carefully of what we remove from a system or process. We have to be aware of the second and third order effects.
I will leave you with one final video: How Wolves Change Rivers: