Go-Karts and Self-Management

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.


  1. Mark 14 years ago

    Great article, Dave. I think you need to continue with this theme. Maybe some sort of book or series on management and motivation.

  2. Ashish 14 years ago

    I agree with the word..realistically.  As you pointed out, I think the problem is with the word perfection…and peak-throttle. 

    I read some of your other posts yesterday.  I am glad the book is of help.  Let’s get together for a breathing exercises once you get back from CA.  I’ll share some of the techniques I learned during my body cleansing process.

    have a great trip!

  3. Samuel Kordik 14 years ago

    Insightful thinking. Your analogy is compelling and provides a good model for any leader. I am trying right now to structure my personal maintenance using the five parts of happiness you referenced in your last post. Going to bed on time, rising early, and making those workouts happen seems to be the key for me, just like regular oil changes and tuneups are the key to maintaining my car.

  4. Duff 14 years ago

    This is great. Personal development generally does not adequately accept or embrace limitations.

  5. Bill 14 years ago

    The book that fully elaborates on what you are getting at here is The Now Habit.  Being a creative and analytical person, it is easy to define an effectively infinite amount of work, and have no power to drive yourself to do the deliverable aspects, because your Inner Child is sitting in front of the 12-hour day scheduled for him with his arms crossed, thinking, “Who’s gonna make me?”

    Let me give you a free taste:

    – Schedule all your fun and restorative activities first.  No work.
    – You don’t schedule work until after you have done a half-hour of it, then you can fill in that half-hour.

    He wrote it after advising grad students and noticing that the ones that balanced their lives finished quickly, while the ones who spent all day every day on their thesis took forever.

  6. William Seville 14 years ago

    You should also read up on “super karts” – the wikipedia article is a good (if dry) start.  They are another leap beyond the basic kart


  7. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Bill: Intriguing. It gives me the idea of flowcharting all the points of failure for the various “get it done” systems to see if there’s a pattern. My problem is that I have difficulty balancing internally…I will keep doing the fun and restorative activities; they don’t seem to replenish the same pool of energy. I wonder if there’s a false correlation between the grad students who finished quickly and balance. On the other hand, that suggests that teaching balance is a potential missing key…hm! Thanks for the recommendation!

    William: Interesting! Great, now I have a NEW impossible metric to reach ;-)

  8. Andrew Ryder 14 years ago

    When I hear perfection, I remember back to something I can never recall the origin of:

    “The only perfect thing in life is imperfection.”

    Maybe best left for a fortune cookie, but I always love that quote.

  9. Lorenz 14 years ago

    I’ve been reading through your posts a couple of years and they impress me for being clear, creative and fun. In my opinion, one thing seems to be missing in your productivity search, though: Unstructured and unproductive time. When life is categorized in work and restorative/fun activities where is time for doing nothing at all, just experiencing what is going on, time to let things happen? It sounds so much like a rush to me if every activity is somehow related to productivity. Personally, I enjoy a little bit of medidation once in a while to slow down.  Kind regards from Germany.

  10. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Andrew: The feeling of Perfection, perhaps, is really an artifact of the full integration of one’s past experiences with the sensations of the moment.

    Lorenz: That’s an excellent observation, though I think the reason it’s missing is because I never write in detail how I fritter my time away. Much of my day is unstructured, and I do a lot of random things that are not related to the goals I’ve stated. In this way, I feel I’m doing myself a long-term disservice.

    That might make for an excellent blog post! :-)