Go-Karts and Self-Management

I’m not a car racing fan, so my mental picture of a go-kart was that they were fast bumper cars that you drive for fun at an amusement park. If you talk to a go-kart enthusiast, or read the track rules at a serious go-kart facility, you’ll find that this is not the case at all. I was at F1 Boston with Fred Schechter recently, watching a bunch of people doing laps. Fred, a racing enthusiast himself, was casting an experienced eye over the competition and pointing out errors that were adding seconds to their already-lackluster lap times. As he was talking, I was reminded again that driving competitively means pushing the vehicle to the limit of its performance within the context of the road, which means you need to know the limits and how they interact with each other. Secondly, for consistent performance you also need to maintain your vehicle and treat it well, otherwise the capability you extract from it will be inconsistent (even self-destructive) and will perform below its maximum theoretical capability.

This got me thinking: a lot of new managers (myself included back in the day) tend to think of people as the “fun” kind of go-kart, instead of the performance go-kart. Since I’m managing myself these days and am impatient with my progress, I’ve been trying to gun my productivity accelerator by stomping on the pedal. I’ve been looking for better processes, better motivations, and better technology. It occurred to me this morning that by assuming that the goal was to create the idealized go-kart version of myself, I was setting myself up for failure. The alternative approach is to recognize that I’m a finicky high-performance vehicle that operates at its peak within a fairly narrow range of constraints. I think probably most people are like this, but the widespread assumption is that they are supposed to be ideal general-purpose work vehicles that have instant acceleration, instant breaking, infinitely sticky tires, endless mileage, and never break down. Any manager would love to have that, and some new managers assume that this is what they should cultivate and find in their employees.

Basic Maintenance

I’ve been getting back into my early morning routine this week, and am rediscovering the joys of feeling like I’m ahead of the day instead of constantly feeling behind. And because I’m up early, I’ve been going to the gym also; this gets the blood flowing for the rest of the day, and so long as I don’t mess up by eating too many carbs, my mind is clear and my productivity ticks up. One reason I like the morning is because I don’t feel so bad about spending one hour at the gym if I get there before 8AM and finish before 9AM. If I get there later, I feel I’ve missed the morning and I have to switch to project work. I’m starting to realize that the gym routine is essential to my feeling of physical well being, as is the controlled intake of certain foods and the avoidance of others. I wish this wasn’t the case, but it is the reality and I’ve got to work with what I have instead of wishing for a whole new Dave. Sure, there might be shinier carb-burning Daves out there that are theoretically faster on the track, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll succeed at what I want to do. I can still win based on what I can do with what I have; I just can’t eat junk food and miss the gym session, and that means I have to wake up early. And waking up early means I have to go to sleep earlier too, otherwise the day’s performance will not be as awesome as it could. Those are my physical parameters.

Then there is mental maintenance. I have been trying to suppress my impulse to write for the past few months so I could focus 100% on my current project, which is wrapping up in April. We’re in the home stretch. The assumption is that I need to spend every waking hour doing this, but I find that this has been a real drag. The reason I want to write is because I want to eventually write about stuff I find interesting and design more stuff based on what I’ve learned all the time. I really, really want to do this, and the writing/creating itself is a necessary part of my strategy to create some kind of self-supporting and highly-fulfilling enterprise around it. I’m not sure exactly what, but one thing I’ve learned in the past five years is that market definition works in two ways. The traditional way is to define an audience’s desires, then create a product that meets those desires within the constraints of the buying demographic’s available means of acquisition. The “long tail” way is to make your products as discoverable as possible, find what audience(s) are drawn to it, and then create a symbiotic bond of need and fulfillment. As with many endeavors, this is the classic duality of top-down versus bottom-up design. But I digress…for me to feel that I’m making progress on personal goals, I need to be creating every day. When I do not make progress every day, my mind is distracted and unsettled. This means I do not work on my other projects at peak efficiency.

With these two goals in mind, I’ve decided to accept these two conditions as basic and essential maintenance needs, and am going to allocate 1 hour for the gym and 1 hour for daily writing. In fact, my time is up for the writing, so I’ll continue tomorrow with the rest of my thoughts on this matter regarding how I can drive myself realistically and still perform optimally.