3 High Impact Skills to Learn to Thrive in 2021

Make better decisions, become more adaptable, and manage your time and energy better.

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Illustration by the author

Since 2018, it’s been my tradition to write the skills I anticipate to be the most important for the next year. This year, as you can imagine, the skills are going to be a little different.

2020 was such a big slap in the face for everyone. When people started losing their jobs and closing their businesses down, I felt blessed that I was still doing quite good on both fronts initially.

Now, combine the pandemic with the arrival of my newborn son, I lost all my momentum. I had to let go of people I loved working with and cut down hours for others. The game I had been working on for seven years had to be released in the worst of times. To top it off, my wife and I both suffered from postpartum depression.

All that to say, I feel your pain, and my sympathies to you if you lost someone dear to you. All over the world, radical shifts are happening in massive sectors like healthcare and education. The world as we knew it is gone.

And so, we must adapt. At first, to survive, but then to thrive again. The skills in this article are not surface-level skills. They are not easy to learn, and it’s because of that reason that I’m writing it now — so you have time to start preparing to learn them in 2021.

2021 calls for a reinvention for all of us. I’ve done it many times in the past and I’ll do it again this year. Throughout the article, I’ll sprinkle the advice with both evidence and life lessons I’ve learned.

Do you want to make 2021 better? Let’s get to it!

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Mind Map created using MindMeister

Note: List ordered in descending order of importance.

Skill #3: Decision-making

“You miss every shot you don’t take.” — Wayne Gretzky

Have you ever seen someone thrive by not making decisions? Me neither.

Thriving people make decisions and own those decisions. If the decision ends up being bad, they acknowledge it, learn the lesson, and move on. They don’t delve into the past, they make new and improved decisions.

How many decisions did you not make in 2020? What was the cost of not making those decisions? For many people, it cost relationships, money, and sadly, sometimes lives.

On the flip side, how many bad decisions have you made in 2020? Again, what was the cost of making those decisions? Likely about the same cost, right? See, decision-making is a skill you can perfect. As you’ve seen this year, you can survive by not making decisions or making bad ones. But can you thrive?

It’s arguable, but my vote goes for “no”. Look at the people who are still thriving today. Outside the little bit of luck they got, isn’t it true that they made good decisions?

Now that you understand the importance of making good decisions, how about we learn how to make them? Below are some sub-skills you can learn to get better at decision-making.

Sub-skill: Flipping a coin

You don’t realize how much time you waste choosing between different meaningless options. Ten years ago, I started the habit of flipping a coin whenever it takes me more than a minute to make a “meaningless” decision.

Basically, you assign heads and tails to one option each. When you flip the coin, you accept the option and never look back. If you find yourself not liking the option, it’s proof that you were biased towards one option and you should simply pick that one.

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Original illustration licensed from VectorStock.com

If you have a bias towards one option but you’re not convinced to pick it, you could toss the coin twice. If it lands on the option twice in a row, you can pick that option. I call this “fate wants me to pick that option.”

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Original illustration licensed from VectorStock.com

If you have more than two options, consider using a die and assign options for each number. Alternatively, you can flip a coin multiple times to eliminate options.

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Original Illustration licensed from VectorStock.com

How to practice coin-flipping

During the day, whenever you’re faced with a small decision to make, use the coin-flipping method. You’ll be surprised at how many opportunities there are to use it. Once you do it daily for a month, it will become a habit.

If like most people, you don’t have a physical coin, you can download apps in the app store of your choice. Some apps allow you to choose a die with as many faces as you need, which is nice when you have an unusual number of options to choose from.

Sub-skill: Master the 5 Whys

When people try to make “informed” decisions, they ask themselves why they want to do it in the first place. The problem is, most people stop at the first answer. This doesn’t lead to the correct answer.

The 5 whys technique was invented by Toyota in the 1930s to find the root cause of problems. It has since been adapted to project management, startups, personal development, and more.

The idea is simple: ask yourself why five times and you’ll know your answer. So, when it comes to making a decision, ask yourself why you want to make that decision in the first place. To that answer, ask yourself why again. Repeat the process a total of five times.

This will give you clarity about your motivations to do something. From there you can decide if you want to make that decision, and if so, it gives you an idea of how you should proceed.

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Template from ExpertProgramManagement.com. Click to enlarge.

How to practice the 5 Whys

Every time you have a medium-to-large sized decision to make, use the 5 Whys method. Fill out the template from above. If the decision needs to involve other people, either share your answers with them and ask for their opinion or do the exercise with them.

Alternatively, when working in a team, you could have every team member do it individually and then you regroup to compare results. Oftentimes, it’s quite fascinating how everyone sees things differently. The more people you involve, the slower the process, but the more perspectives you’ll take into account.

Use the 5 Whys technique for one or two months and it will become a habit. The more you do it, the more effective it will become.

Sub-skill: Using the 1–50 rule

I came up with the 1–50 rule a few years ago as I was working on some startup ideas. I’ve always had a knack for starting things, but they always felt too rushed and never really addressed the needs of the people I was trying to help.

To maintain efficiency while adding effective results, I created what I call the 1–50 rule. The idea is as follows:

“What can I do in 1 day that will yield 50 percent of the results I’m looking for?”

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Illustration by the author

It’s a more intense version of the Pareto Principle, which we’ll cover later in this article. What I like about the 1–50 rule is that by restricting a project to be done in a single day, you force yourself to think creatively about how to do it, without trying to reinvent the wheel.

Skeptics will say it’s impossible, visionaries will think about how to make it possible. Be a visionary.

How to practice the 1–50 rule

  1. Figure out what is 100 percent of the results you’re trying to achieve.
  2. Divide everything you need to do to achieve that full result. For each thing, estimate at what percentage it helps you achieve the full result and how many hours it would take you to do it.
  3. Pick those that take less than a day combined and that reach about 50 percent of the results. The challenge is to make sure it’s doable with only these small parts.

The end result could be visualized using a table, like these examples:

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10 hours for 50% results
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10.5 hours for 55% of the results

The more you practice the 1–50 rule, the easier it will get to do the following:

  • Identify a clear desired result;
  • How to divide the tasks and estimate their times and percentage towards the full result; and
  • Picking the right choices to make it feasible.

Skill #2: Adaptability

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” — Charles Darwin

I debated very hard about making this the most important one on the list. My current conclusion is that adaptability is the most important skill to learn this decade (and likely this century), but in the short-term, productivity is more important to thrive in 2021.

We have thrived as a species because we’ve adapted faster than other species. The 21st century is testing our adaptability like never before and only those who can adapt to the rapid changes can truly thrive.

At the moment of writing this, we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic. All over the world, people are losing their jobs. Specialists have an especially hard time. The school system’s diploma is showing signs of weakness. Those who have mastered a branch of skills at school and can’t work because of the pandemic are struggling to find ways to make money.

Polymaths, and even jack-of-all-trades, adapted and found new ways to generate revenues. But it’s certainly not all about money.

Those who can adapt do not panic when their situation changes. They can analyze the situation and try something different. They don’t sit around and mope. They find solutions.

The 21st century is going to throw curveballs like never before. Job disruptions will happen on all fronts. According to a study by two Oxford researchers, Carl Benedict Frey and Michael A. Osborne, by 2033, 47 percent of US jobs will be at high risk of disruption by computer algorithms.

Those who can’t adapt will be left behind.

The knowledge gap between “classes” of people will be wider than it ever was. According to Yuval Noah Harari in his book Homo Deus, it will even come to create a new “unworking” class. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

In the twenty-first century, we might witness the creation of a massive new unworking class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power, and glory of society. This “useless” class will not be merely unemployed — it will be unemployable.

Your hard skills of today will not save you from this harsh reality. Even the soft skills I and other experts promote might become irrelevant, but one thing won’t: being adaptable.

Sub-skill: Preparing

Being adaptable isn’t about knowing exactly what to do in every situation, it’s about being prepared for a wide variety of possible scenarios. In this article, I’ll explain how to be more prepared using contingency planning.

I also strongly recommend you learn to be more self-aware, which is also a great way to prepare to become more adaptable. I wrote a full guide here.

A contingency plan is a plan designed to take a possible future event or circumstance into account. An adaptable person has given thought about what these possible future events might be and know how to proceed if they happen.

For example, no one can (arguably) predict a natural disaster, but they can predict a situation where they won’t be able to live where they currently live or that they’ll lose their main source of income.

Ponder on these questions:

  • What would you do if you had to move out of your home tomorrow?
  • What would you do if you lost your main source of income today?
  • What would you do if you had to take care of another person by yourself all of a sudden?
  • What would you do if you had to flee your country with less than 24 hours’ notice?

These are real situations that are happening to real people every day. Most of these people are not prepared for it but are forced to act right away. I mentioned that at the time of writing this, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. It forced everyone to be adaptable, including schools, hospitals, and the government.

To become more adaptable, you have to practice preparing for many such scenarios.

How to practice contingency planning

Here are some key steps you want to consider when writing down a contingency plan (inspired by projectmanager.com):

  • Note where there are resources that can be used in an emergency. Also, note where in your contingency plan these resources might be applied.
  • Identify dates that if missed will negatively impact your plan.
  • Know your contingency plan. Check for any weak links and strengthen them. Identify any slack that you can find in it.
  • See if you can find points in your plan where alternative routes can be taken, and think through each one’s scenario to add flexibility to your plan.
  • Use your experience to help you see patterns in your project’s ebb and flow of activity to sharpen your plan.

Sub-skill: Taking action

The first skill you read about was about making decisions. That’s really only the first step. It’s entirely possible to make good decisions and not act on them. Surely you’re experienced that.

Taking action was the skill I listed as the 3rd most important skill to learn in 2019. Today, I view it as a sub-skill to being adaptable. To be adaptable, you must be able to do things. You don’t adapt passively. As such, the more actions you take, the more adaptable you will become.

There are many ways to learn to take action. I cover most of them in this other article I wrote. Here, we’ll look into the three most impactful ones you can start learning today.

How to practice taking action

Set time aside for non-urgent tasks. One thing you can do is set aside time to do things you wouldn’t normally be doing. Spend at least 30 minutes daily trying out different things you’re completely unskilled in. Dare to fail.

Attend events out of your comfort zone. Start small. Browse events that make you slightly uneasy. Sign up for them and attend them. Don’t let your pity excuses win. Involve someone else to attend with you as needed. Gradually, you want to try things that are even less comfortable. When you make being uncomfortable a habit, you start to increase your adaptability.

Keep learning. The more you view your actions as learning experiments, the more you’ll be willing to try new things. Use the 5-hour rule. Spend one hour every day to focus on your learning. If you need help, check out SkillUp Academy.

Solve more problems. Thinking logically is a surprisingly good way to become more adaptable. It helps you figure out everything that’s implied in a situation and figure out a solution to the problem. And the more you can analyze a problem and its variables, the more you can think creatively about a solution. And a great way to get better at it is to try to solve logic puzzles like what’s found here.

Sub-skill: Changing your mindset

Believe that things can change. Many people think they can’t. Experts call this having a fixed mindset. People who believe that things can change have a growth mindset.

Here’s a great infographic made by Nigel Holmes based on the concepts from Carol Dweck in her book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

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Source: BrainPickings.org

Both models are right. But when it comes to becoming more adaptable, the only model you should follow is the growth mindset.

How to practice changing your mindset

Stop negative self-talk and drop negative words from your vocabulary. Whenever you say something negative about yourself, promise to do something that will prevent you from doing it the next time. Here are some ideas:

  • Put money in a jar. If you haven’t said anything negative about yourself for a month, you can use the money any way you want.
  • Use a habit-breaking device like the Pavlok 2 whenever you use negative words about yourself.
  • Give to an anti-charity using something like StickK.com.

Stop needless apologies. The right approach isn’t to apologize to someone, but rather to thank that person. Say: “Thank you for your help” or “Thanks for understanding”. Everyone makes mistakes. Saying “thank you” has the benefit of praising the other person.

Improve your coping mechanism. Try these coping activities: write in a journal, listen to music, spend time in nature, read a book, engage in a hobby, list the things you feel grateful for, smile, or go for a walk.

Drop blaming habits. One of my favourite methods to prevent me from blaming myself or others is to use a failure journal. I wrote about the process here.

Tell yourself positive mantras. A positive mantra is about telling yourself a short phrase many times so that you start to believe it. Here are some ideas:

  1. My strength is greater than any struggle.
  2. I’m fearless.
  3. I’m getting stronger every day.
  4. I can do this.
  5. I was not made to give up.
  6. I am who I want to be.
  7. No one can make me feel inferior.
  8. I inspire others.
  9. I choose what I become.
  10. I’ve decided that I’m good enough.
  11. I wink at challenge.
  12. I have the power to change my story.
  13. It’s not their job to like me, it’s mine.
  14. I use failure as a stepping stone.
  15. I dare to say no.

Skill #1: Productivity

“There’s nothing so useless as doing effectively that which should not be done at all.” — Peter Drucker

I rank this the most important skill to thrive in 2021. Now that everyone’s searching for employment, guess who will take the highly coveted jobs? Right, those who get things done.

What productivity is not is doing a lot of things. Productivity is about effectiveness and efficiency in two areas: time and energy. Many forget the latter. I’ll cover both equally in this article.

Many people think they’re productive, but that’s rarely the case. When I chat with coaching clients about their habits and schedule, I can always find improvements to do. Most of the time, we’re talking about significant improvements both in terms of time and energy.

I still remember my first-ever mentee having close to zero energy. He was from India and had the guts to reach out to me and ask for help. It turns out, a few months later, I was moving to India in the exact city he was living in.

He couldn’t find the girl of his dreams. He was stressed at work. He watched “success porn” on YouTube for instant motivation, but when it came time to taking action, he didn’t have the energy and felt like he also didn’t have the time.

Of course, all that was in his mind.

And boy is it hard to rewire someone’s brain! I have no pretence that I can do that with you reading this article, but I’ll try anyway!

So, during my time in India, I already saw improvement, but his productivity was still fairly low. A year later, he got it. He found his groove, managed his time and energy better, and found a leadership position in a startup he liked.

And another year later, a few months back, he told me he’s getting married and starting his own company. I had a call with him and he was a different man. He had this glow in his eyes and immense energy and passion.

That’s a productive person in action!

Most people start from the same level my first mentee started. Trust me, there is a path to reaching his level. It’s not an easy path, but I hope this article will help.

After all, being productive is one of the best ways to thrive in a world dominated by procrastination.

Below are some sub-skills you can learn to get better at time and energy management.

Sub-skill: Mastering “When”

Did you know that there’s a better time to do different activities? In his book When Daniel H. Pink mentions the following periods during the day:

  1. Morning peak. Whether it’s right after waking up or 1–2 hours later, most people feel pretty good early in the day.
  2. Afternoon trough. You know how it’s tough to stay awake after lunch? This is it.
  3. Evening rebound. Once you knock off work, even the toughest days take a turn, don’t they?

We all go through those moments at different times of the day. But how do you know when it is for you? The first step is to know your chronotype. You can use the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire (MCTQ), but most people have a pretty good idea of what their chronotype is.

You have the larks (morning people), the night owls (evening/night people), and the third birds. Most people are third birds, the “in-between” chronotype. Here’s a good infographic explaining the differences:

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Source: danpink.com

If you want to know yours without a doubt, I encourage you to try Pink’s Daily When Tracker.

So, what do you do once you know your chronotype? You realize when your three periods from above occur and as much as you can, you plan your daily activities around them. Here’s a brief overview, again, from When:

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How to practice When

I like the daily tracker I shared as a first activity to do. Every day for at least one week, you rate your mental alertness and energy level. This should take you less than a minute every waking hour to do.

Then, when you do your daily and weekly planning, you’ll have a better idea of when to schedule what activity. You’ll be surprised at how similar every day is. So, for a month, experiment with a different routine until you find one that really works for you.

If you analyze the chart from above, you’ll notice that early afternoon is not a good time for anything for any chronotypes. Essentially, as much as possible, you shouldn’t try to do any important things in the early afternoon.

Here’s what you should be practicing in the afternoon: a power nap. Failing that, take a moment to take a walk. If you’re not familiar with power naps, I explain the concept in great detail in this complete guide.

Sub-skill: Using the 80/20 rule (Pareto Principle)

In theory, the 80/20 rule is simple. 20 percent of your inputs equal 80 percent of your outputs.

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Source

But what does that mean? If you read about the 1–50 rule earlier to help you with decision-making, you’ll notice that I noted the percentage at which some activities count toward the ultimate result. Here was an example I used:

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If you look at Task 5, it’s clear that it contributes the most towards the full result while requiring a low effort in time. Identifying such tasks is the essence of the 80/20 rule.

The idea is that you mostly do the tasks that don’t require much effort but yield the most results. Remember, productivity isn’t about doing more, it’s (partly) about doing more of the right things. Mastering the 80/20 rule will make you very efficient at time management.

How to practice the 80/20 rule

James Clear, the author of the highly popular book Atomic Habits, proposes a very simple strategy:

  1. Make a list of the 10 things you spend the most time on.
  2. Circle the two that truly drive your results. Do more of those.
  3. Look at the others. Eliminate ruthlessly. Automate or outsource what you can. Press pause on the rest.
  4. Repeat.

This is a good first attempt. Step 4 reads “repeat”, but how frequently? If you want to get better at it, repeat it daily. At the very minimum, repeat weekly. In my daily planner, I always keep the top three things I must do for the day at the top. If I accomplish only these three things, it’s a solid day.

But other than Clear’s method, I like to mix this practice with curiosity. I do that by thinking about how things work. Here are some questions you can try to answer to help you practice the rule:

  • If you had to learn a new language, how would you approach it effectively?
  • What small things could you do to retain 80 percent of what you read in this article?
  • How could you double your salary within six months?
  • How could you learn a new skill in 15 hours of practice?

Try to find the answers on your own without research first, and then verify by Googling it. I guarantee you that you’ll find answers showing you more effective ways to do all of the above.

Learning languages is a good example because it has clear inputs that lead to higher outputs. For example, learning the top 100–1,000 words and learning the infinitive verbs. Popular blogger Tim Ferriss wrote about 12 rules for learning languages that are all derived from using the 80/20 rule.

Most skills can be learned faster using the 80/20 rule. In fact, learning how to learn is the best application of the rule. This is a topic I’ve written a lot about. You can check out my most comprehensive guide on how to learn that in 15, 100, and 1,000 hours.

Sub-skill: Using the Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix helps you figure out the right things to spend your time on. It looks like this:

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Illustration by the author

When you look at it, you may think something is wrong. Shouldn’t I do Urgent and Important things in priority? The answer is “kind of”. In reality, you want as few tasks as possible in that category. They’re high-stress things that must be done in the short-term but are likely not moving your long-term agenda.

Essentially, if most of what you do is urgent and important, you’re constantly fighting fires. Or you’re simply not very good at defining what’s urgent or important.

The second quadrant, the “Important but not urgent” tasks are about prevention. These are things you do for your well being or for your future. Most people forego this quadrant almost entirely. But those who plan well have fewer fires to fight. That’s right, the more you invest in it, the fewer urgent tasks you’ll have. That’s incredibly freeing if you ask me.

How to practice using the Eisenhower Matrix

Anytime you’re doing some form of planning, use the matrix. I use it for weekly planning, project planning, and more. This forces me to decide what I need to do now and soon, what I should delegate and how, and what to leave out entirely (quadrant IV — Not urgent and not important tasks).

To determine what’s a quadrant IV activity, review this list of 31 things you should say “no” to. Everything on that list should simply not be done.

To determine what’s a quadrant III activity (urgent but not important), use the 80/20 rule from above. Ask yourself: how much effort is it and how much does it contribute to the result I’m looking for? If the effort is too high for the result it yields, chances are it’s worth delegating. Delegate to people who may view this as a quadrant I or II activity.

To determine what’s a quadrant II activity (not urgent but important task), think long term. Is this something that, if I do today, will make my future better? Usually, these are things about your well being, like physical exercise, learning, planning, reflecting, etc.

To determine what’s a quadrant I activity (urgent and important task), think about how bad it would be not to do it today. What are the negative and positive impacts of not procrastinating on this one? And don’t be dramatic here. Try to answer that question objectively. Involve others as needed.

Conclusion

2021 doesn’t have to suck as 2020 did.

Sure, the pandemic situation is very likely to stay for a little while longer, but now that you’ve accepted that, you can make good decisions about how to move forward. I hope this article has helped you figure out how to make better decisions. Or even make decisions at all, to begin with.

I hope you now understand how important it is to learn to become more adaptable. There are many ways to do it, but it starts with taking action on things that are uncomfortable for you.

And above all, I hope you’ll get better at managing your time and energy — the foundation of productivity. The world is getting more and more competitive. If you don’t want to be left out, you have to stop procrastinating, make the best of your 24 hours daily, and be sure to remain high in energy.

If you learn these three skills, I have no doubt you can thrive in 2021.

You can do this!

Happy learning!

— Danny
For more insightful articles, check out dannyforest.com!

dannyforest.com <- my new home. I don’t write on Medium anymore.

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