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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.

    More by this author

    Joel Falconer

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

    Mastering the Art of Prioritization The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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