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Tactics & Strategy: Do you know the difference?

Tactics & Strategy: Do you know the difference?
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    Attaining true productivity can be an elusive process, and often when I look around at the methods people are using I see two distinct approaches: tactics, like motivation hacks, or overarching strategies, like applying the concept of minimalism to productivity.

    But the best productivity systems use both approaches, with the strategy providing a framework for action and the tactics defining those actions. People often use the terms strategy and tactics interchangeably, and that’s where the danger begins.

    A system based on tactics without strategy leads to shooting in the dark—you might get something done, but it doesn’t become sustainable or provide you with a path to continue on. A system based on strategy without tactics means the strategy has no means of being carried out.

    The principle is that tactics are defined by the strategy, and that neither can exist effectively without the other.

    What is your strategy?

    If you want to set up a productivity system, invest the time in not only learning it but making it a habit, and be able to use it for many years to come, it’s very important to consider well your strategy—the foundations of the system.

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    If you do a knock-up job here, you’ll pay for it when you find you need to start from scratch. A builder once told me that when you buy a house, it’s important to check the foundations: you can fix most problems, but if the foundation is unstable, you may end up having to start from scratch.

    It’s a good time for a retrospective, introspective look at the way you work. Do you work best under pressure? In a minimalist environment? Does having information scattered and cluttered around you inspire you to work?

    Know your optimal working conditions and set these up as the basis of your strategy, so that your entire methodology motivates you and you get the job done. Avoid the temptation to go with a mindset that doesn’t suit you—don’t choose minimalism just because it’s the trend if clutter actually does get you working.

    Productivity systems are inherently about getting you to do things, and each person ticks to a different clock. That’s where pre-packaged systems like Getting Things Done often fall down. It’s a great system that works for some, but if it doesn’t work for you, that’s not your fault.

    Though all productivity requires discipline, if a system just doesn’t work for you, don’t beat yourself up because you just “can’t” become a motivated, productive person. Persist, experiment, and you’ll find out what does work.

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    The other important starting point for developing strategy is your strategic outcome. Know specifically what it is that you wish to achieve through your system; is it purely to get more done, so you can spend even more time on your new business? Or do you want to get all your work done in a shorter time and set boundaries so you can spend more time with your family?

    Knowing your work mindset and your strategic outcome allows you to form a workable strategy.

    I’ve found that defining your strategy clearly on paper (or screen) helps you adhere to and retain it. If you leave it to the memory you’ll likely forget all about it next week.

    Implementation is the next important step, and the way to implement a strategy is through tactics.

    Tactics

    Every tactic must suit the strategy. If you can’t explain how a tactic helps you achieve the strategic outcome, then it’s probably not the best choice and needs to be rethought.

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    Tactics are the actions that lead to execution of the strategy. The keyword is action, but tactics are made up of a few elements (some of the following are optional, depending on how you work):

    • An action
    • A purpose
    • A schedule
    • A measurable result

    The Action

    This is the most obvious element. Without an action, what would a tactic be? For every action that needs to be taken care of in your life, a tactic can be created. Writing this article was one action in a daily writing tactic. This is the tactic I use to ensure that I keep writing despite the temptation to fire up NetNewsWire. This tactic is made up of several actions, since I write for a few different publications.

    The Purpose

    Sometimes our to-do lists get filled up with tasks that have no purpose. What are you achieving by carrying an action out? Is it helping you achieve your strategic outcome? Is it helping you achieve any of your goals? This component of a tactic serves two purposes:

    1. It ensures that every tactic adheres to the principle outlined earlier: all tactics must help you achieve your strategic outcome.
    2. It ensures you’re not wasting time on tasks that provide no return.

    I regularly go through my task list and ask myself, if I do this, what goal or strategic outcome will it advance or satisfy? and frequently, if I don’t do this, how will that affect my projects and outcomes? Shaving unnecessary tasks is important when the list gets too long to complete.

    The Schedule

    Most effective tactics contain a scheduling component—don’t just decide that you’re going to use an empty inbox tactic (a tactic of the minimalist family), but decide when and how often you’re going to process messages.

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    I would suggest adding those regular tactics to a calendar like Outlook or iCal with a reminder, but that depends on your strategy. Perhaps you avoid tasks when you’re reminded to do them?

    Actions move you towards your goals, while scheduling ensures actions are executed.

    The Measurable Result

    When you complete something, can you measure the result? After finishing this article, I’ve got several metrics to work with:

    • One more piece in my body of work
    • Roughly a thousand more words in my body of work
    • One account receivable
    • Comments (measure success of article and refine for next time)

    There’s usually no need to track these results meticulously for every task, but when you’re unsure whether a task is working for you or just wasting your time, measurement provides hard answers.

    When you adopt a new system in any area of life, changes don’t happen overnight. New systems take time before they become second nature, so work hard at sticking to it and developing those new habits.

    Most importantly, remember that the most effective productivity systems have the strongest foundations.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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