Author's Note

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Results was the name of the game, and I didn’t have the playbook. When I first joined Microsoft more than 10 years ago, I was overwhelmed. It was a sink or swim environment. Every day I had to play catch up from the day before. I got more email than I could possibly read, more action items than I could possibly do, and challenges that were beyond my skills at the time. Inside the team, we affectionately called this scenario, “trial by fire.” There were no boundaries to my days, each day bled into night, and I was consistently “burning the midnight oil.” It reminded me of the saying, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”


However, I hadn’t moved across the country, leaving everything and everyone I knew behind, to fail right off the bat. One of the first things I did to survive was study the best of the best. I found people in the company that got results, and I learned from them. I learned everything I could about productivity from anybody who was willing to share their system with me.


I learned the power of information management. I was amazed how factoring out action from reference helped me cut my information overload. Simply getting organized helped me get unnecessary information out of my way, and helped me find the important information faster. By paying attention to how I used information, I could optimize for my main scenarios. For example, some things were “fire and forget” (i.e., deal with it now and be done), while others were “follow up.” I was amazed at how much information I had optimized for look up, but never actually used.


I learned the power of time management, focus, and prioritization. Without time limits, I simply threw more hours at any problem: I treated time as my silver bullet, but I really was robbing Peter to pay Paul. I learned that by setting time limits on things like administration and email, I could better prioritize and focus. I learned to be accountable for my time.


I learned the power of technique. Without a technique, I couldn’t consistently produce effective results. Of course, when I didn’t have time limits, I didn’t notice this because I simply threw more time at problems. Once I set limits, I had to find the most effective technique possible. For example, I found that keeping a simple list of actions outside of my email versus letting my inbox drive me, not only put me in control, but saved me countless wasted time and effort.


I learned the power of project management. When I moved to the patterns & practices team in Microsoft, my job went from working on smaller customer issues to driving projects and leading teams around the world. I had to learn how to break big problems down and make progress over time. I learned the impact of constraints in terms of time, resources, budget, and energy. I learned to play to my strengths, and how to maximize the impact of the overall team. Learning project management helped me learn the discipline of getting results on big problems spread over time.


I learned the power of flexibility. There's no one-size-fits-all, so I learned that I need to be flexible, and so does my system. I tested a lot of productivity systems. The problems I found with the systems I tried were that they were all or nothing, or they were too complicated, or they were tools-oriented, or they made me a slave to tasks and action items. I wanted to get out from under my backlogs, and I wanted agility and the ability to focus on opportunity. I stepped back and focused on the principles, patterns, and practices to integrate what I learned from productivity, project management, positive psychology, software development, and leadership skills.


Lastly, I learned the power of balance. When I was investing too much in work, I realized how that impacted other areas of my life. Through a lot of pain, trial and error, and feedback, I learned that I needed to treat life like a portfolio of investments. I could only spend my time and energy on so many things, but if I spent my time and energy in the right things, the sum became more than the parts. I learned to invest my life force in the following areas which I call Hot Spots: mind, body, emotions, career, financial, relationships, and fun. By investing in those buckets, while setting boundaries and limits, I’ve learned to find balance, while maximizing my results. The key to balance is to know these buckets and then invest wisely. The buckets support each other. Under-investing in one area, limits your results in other areas, just as over-investing in an area can take its toll. Balance and synergy are your friends.


As I mentored people and teams around Microsoft to help them get results, I honed my system. It was one thing for me to get results, but it has been quite another to package it up for other people. Because I was continuously building new project teams, I needed a system for getting new people on each team up to speed quickly. As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” These challenges forced me to simplify my system, and lean it down to the most effective parts. The result is a time-tested system that scales up for large teams and down for individuals—it is a system I can bet on time and again. The most important thing is that it’s simple, so if I fall off the horse, it’s easy to get back on.


This guide is the playbook that I wish somebody had given me so many years ago for getting results.


—J.D.

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