I often find myself unable to dream or think outside the box during business hours. Day in, day out, I’m stuck in a ritual of fighting fires and managing chaos.
Yet the startup relies on everyone, including myself, to innovate.
So what to do?
I’ve experimented with many different strategies to this effect: From watching a TED talk every morning to working at a coworking space once a week. Here are three tactics I’ve had success with:
1. Work somewhere else
Once a week, I schedule an afternoon to work at a location other than my office. I make sure no meetings are scheduled and block time off on my calendar.
Sometimes, I wander to a coffee shop. Other times, I find a coworking space. I’ve even managed to work at client offices and friends’ workplaces. Once I phone interviewed a candidate at a shopping mall.
Working in different environments stimulates different parts of my brain. No longer in my comfort zone, I pay attention to elements I usually don’t at my desk. I compare how similar activities get accomplished at different places, by different people.
In one case, when I found myself working at a busy coffee shop, I noticed how a new barista found himself overwhelmed and receiving little help from peers. He failed to find paper towels after spilling some milk, and struggled to operate their payment system. The line grew longer while no peers offered to help the young man. I couldn’t help but think whether the manager even gave him a tour of the shop, and why nobody mentored him. It was probably a very demoralizing day for the new barista.
That’s when I thought of my own team’s onboarding process and realized many new team members may also feel overwhelmed. This gave rise to a formal team member onboarding process including scheduled trainings, mentor assignment, and even the creation of best-practices for other managers.
2. Chat with someone unlike you
I’ve had my most creative ideas by chatting with people from other teams and different walks of life.
People I don’t interact with daily, who have differing priorities, help me see my own problems from a different angle. I find this particularly valuable when trying to grasp a new problem, and when brainstorming solutions.
A chat with our marketing data scientist is how we created a cross-team data analysis meetup. I realized we were facing similar challenges after chatting with the individual about data acquisition and quality issues. My team faced these issues with client projects, while he faced similar issues working with our own company’s data. Very early into our chat, we knew we could share best-practices and learn from each other. In the end, the internal analysis meetup was attended by data scientists from three groups: Our client facing group, our marketing team, and our finance team. Together, they found a venue to help each other and share learnings.
3. Keep a daily journal
After reading the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” I struggled to keep tap on my progress. I had no idea whether I was improving. I thus decided to start a journal to record highlights of my day and reflect. I now spend the last 15 minutes of my day journaling.
This exercise has allowed me to compare reality versus ideal. Reality is what happened, what I did. Ideal is what I wanted to happen.
For instance, I always compare what I managed to get done in a day versus what I planned to get done. This helps me diagnose why I failed to get to certain tasks, or how I was able to find free time. Over time, I got really good at knowing what is a reasonable to-do list.
Another element I record in my journal is my reaction to emergencies and fires that arise throughout the day. I often find my reaction to bad surprises less than ideal, driven by emotions rather than my rational mind. Journaling allows me to reflect on how I should have reacted to the event. And if this were to happen again, how I can make sure I stay in control. I give my conscious mind an opportunity to recognize mistakes and correct itself.
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