On Thinking — Balancing Thinking with Distracting
Writing through my thoughts on focus, avoiding distraction, and searching for clear long-term thinking
Michael Seibel, the CEO of Y Combinator, has a podcast called Life, Work, and Startups, where he shares bits of advice in three-minute snippets. A few months ago, I listened to an episode where he talked about what you can do to try to be a good CEO, and how easy it is to be a bad CEO. Michael broke it down with the idea that any company, team, or project is in either one of two phases: decision-making mode or execution mode. Decision-making mode is when you’re planning, figuring out your next steps, and thinking long-term. Execution mode is when you’re heads down working, building, and… executing.
Michael’s main point was that as a leader, you can be at your most destructive if you confuse which of these two states your team should be in. Making decisions when you should be executing, or executing when you should be making decisions.
A practical example could be: If you’re working with a team of software engineers who are knee deep in writing code to meet a launch deadline, the absolute worst thing you could do is tap them on the shoulder and talk about ideas for next week. If it doesn’t help your team do what they need to do right now, then what’s the point? You can wait until you’re done executing to have that discussion. It’s not that these discussions aren’t important, it’s that waiting for the right time can help you and everyone around you be the most productive. It’s a challenge to wait until the right time, but unnecessary context-switching slows everyone down.
I resonated so strongly with this idea in my own work. Most of my creative flow comes in the form of document writing (to the extent that Microsoft Word is creative). I’m actively trying to synthesize data sources, customer feedback, first-hand observations, and anything else that might be relevant into a clear and cohesive business case. Flow is huge for me: “People don’t really know how huge momentum is. Momentum is huge!” Not just in balancing a lot of information, but working through my thinking until I reach some key insight. So, when my day is interrupted by meetings or emails that don’t directly involve accomplishing what I’m trying to accomplish, it completely throws me off. If it takes me another 15–30 minutes or longer to get back into my flow, the wasted time adds up. Preserve the flow!
I recently realized that I do my best thinking when I’m out on a walk (ideally with sunshine) and have some type of background noise playing on my headphones. I feel like I can actually focus and work through my brain without feeling the urge to check my phone or laptop, or be distracted by anything else. The best framing I’ve heard for this state is “clearing out your mental inbox” from Naval Ravikant on the Tim Ferriss Show.
During my walk in the tweet above, a connection hit me. What if this separation was my own personal version of decision-making mode? I’m not doing anything in particular. I’m just thinking and going wherever my mind takes me. I’m not distracted by any activity, I’m just being. Mindfulness, meditation, being still, etc could really just be a way to force ourselves into decision-making mode.
Like in our working lives, it’s so easy and so destructive to confuse decision-making mode with execution mode. I almost always start my day by checking my phone, and I start my work day by opening my laptop. But once that happens, we’re immediately met with overnight notifications, emails, and daily newsletters. We’re forced into active reading and acting, even if we’re not even trying to be productive yet. I thought that catching up on these things was helping me plan and prepare for the day, but that wasn’t entirely true. This wasn’t planning or thinking freely. This wasn’t giving me the same inspiration, creativity, and peace of mind that walking gives me.
When opening our laptops launches us into activity, we’re forced into our own form of execution mode. But maybe worse, it’s execution mode falsely veiled as decision-making mode. That confusion of states may be the root of our distractions. I think it is for me.
Wait Buy Why has my favorite writing about this. It helped me see that this could actually be a form of procrastination.
So what to do?
Since I became aware of decision vs execution mode, I started to notice how often I’d confuse these states myself. It started with work. Every bit of me wants to talk about future ideas and have longer-term discussions about what we’ll need to do weeks and months from now. But, when it’s a Friday, and I’m working with a team to get something done by Monday, I need to resist that urge. It doesn’t mean that it’s not important, it just means that it’s not the time where It’s helpful for myself or for anyone else.
In the professional world, the flow-wasting risk is jumping into decision-making mode. But personally, I think the risk is jumping into execution mode.
Once we open our screens, we’re thrust immediately into execution mode. Reading the latest news is doing, not planning. So, my new intention is to try to detach opening my screen from starting my day. It’s a bold move, I know. But, I want to try to start my day in my own thoughts, thinking about my goals for the day. Reading the news is part of it, replying to email is part of it. But how much time should I spend on those things? What else, barring no emergencies, should I plan to accomplish today, this week, this cycle? What decisions do I need to make up front, so that I can execute with limited distractions?
What if our best thinking didn’t happen in front of a screen? How much more could we accomplish?
ps — I wrote the entire first draft of this post while walking a lap around a golf course. Everyone must have thought I was a typical millennial addicted to my iPhone and my AirPods. Little do they know, I was writing about the intention to do the exact opposite. I want to try speaking a blog post, but I don’t think wandering around outside is the environment to do it. I don’t want people to think I’m crazy. Maybe another time.
Let me know what you think on Twitter @MSilb7!