This May Explain Why You’re Working Too Hard


Sunday, 7.45pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A lot of people mistake habit for hard work. Doing something over and over again is not working hard. – Shannon Sharpe

In my last post I looked at twelve common reasons why people make mistakes. There are hundreds more, I’m lead to believe, but we all know things go wrong and people don’t do what they’re supposed to do. Why is that and what can we do to make things better?

I saw a post from an entrepreneur who was talking about how hard they worked. David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done talks about every boss has four times the workload of their direct reports. And then I saw another post about Brian Joiner’s Three Levels of Fix which perhaps explains why this is the case.

Brian Joiner is the author of Fourth Generation Management, which is a few decades old now, and writes about what it really means to fix a problem. Joiner’s work is inspired by that of W. Edwards Deming and you can see that in his Three Levels of Fix method.

Deming wrote that 5% of the problems you see in a business are due to the people and 95% is due to the “system”, the environment they operate in. The only people with power to change the system are the management, the people who make decisions on what to do and what not to do.

I’ve adapted Joiner’s words a bit in the picture above so let’s work through it. Fixing a problem is often the easy bit – a bit like shooting at a target. If there’s a leaking tap or a missing piece of paperwork or a broken part – you can fix it. You probably get this all the time at work – something goes wrong and you have to sort it out. This is just work and people work hard to sort out all the problems that happen every day, just like that entrepreneur above. And at the end of the day you can be happy because you’ve moved 10 or a 100 things on.

But if you’re wondering why you have all those problems the next step is to look at the process that results in the problems. This is a box or a series of boxes that tend to be done by people and somewhere in there something is being done incorrectly. A form isn’t well designed and it’s filled out wrong more often than not. You don’t get the right items in your online shopping order because the staffing rota means that people struggle during changeover times. These kinds of process problems can be fixed by looking at all the steps that happen and focusing on the ones that seem to result in a problem further down the line.

The next level of fix, and this is the one the managers and leaders have to do, is to fix the environment that supported the process that cause the problem. This has to do with fuzzy things like culture and norms and politics and so the container is funny shaped because there isn’t a simple answer most of the time. If you have a boss who is hard to deal with and shouts a lot at everyone then people are scared to speak up. Unless you’re able to change the way in which people are treated, the problems will keep happening and that change might need to start by making the boss more aware of the impact they’re having and helping them to change. And that kind of thing is incredibly hard to do.

Of course, this is where evolution lends a helping hand. Organizations that can learn from their problems and change themselves to avoid those problems in the future will be more likely to survive than ones that don’t. If things work well and you aren’t stressed and people have the right capacities then it’s likely that you’ve got the hard, fuzzy bits right. If you’re maxed out and working very very hard but getting nowhere it’s likely that you’re focusing on targets or on hard edged processes.

The challenge is that this kind of stuff isn’t taught to people in charge. So most people muddle through working hard and wondering why it doesn’t seem to get any better. And that’s because there is no silver bullet, no simple hack, no fast way to fix things.

If you want an easy life you have to be ready to wrestle with the hard questions.


Karthik Suresh

Why Do People Make Mistakes?


Saturday, 8.26pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We learn from each other. We learn from others’ mistakes, from their experience, their wisdom. It makes it easier for us to come to better decisions in our own lives. – Adrian Grenier

LinkedIn as a social network is turning out to be a good place to learn new things. Perhaps it’s the nature of the network I’ve been connecting with but I’ve been seeing some useful and interesting ideas and concepts surfacing on my timeline.

For example, I recently learned about human reliability – it turns out there is a whole field that studies how much you can depend on people to do things right. And here we were just blaming it on incompetence. But then, you know that old thing about the world being full of bad drivers and on some days you’re the bad driver.

The aircraft industry is one that takes human reliability very seriously and seems to have done a lot of work to reduce the chances of a mistake being made. I remember this from the few flying lessons I did – how we followed a set process to walk around the aircraft and check everything, from the condition of the wings to the colour of the fuel. Then we followed a checklist to go through the steps from starting the engine, taxiing, a full power test and then onto the takeoff.

There are hundreds of reasons why people make mistakes but The Dirty Dozen is a starting point, a distillation of the most common mistakes people make at work. Now, the list is pretty self explanatory as you can see from the image above. If you look at the way in which air accident investigators approach a study of an incident – they start by looking at the facts, they analyse their findings, come to their conclusions and then summarise the causes and contributing factors. Some of these may be technical and require changes to equipment and material. And then there are the contributing human factors, which are often from the dirty dozen list.

Now, if you are a manager and need to get others to do things then it’s interesting looking at this list and asking yourself how aware you are of how your colleagues feel about these factors. Do they feel under pressure, are they struggling with inadequate resources, are they scared to speak up because of the norms and culture in the organisation? Or are you doing really well, scoring highly on all these factors – but does that mean there is a danger that you’re becoming complacent?

The takeaway here is that if something goes wrong, this list may act as a useful checklist to look at contributing human factors. More importantly, however, it also gives you a list of things to look out for and try and head off proactively.

The thing you have to remember is that most employees are in a situation where they may feel these things and find it affects their work. The people with the power to change things, however, are the managers and leaders and if you are one of them it’s up to you to change the conditions people are working in so that the risk of a mistake being made due to one of these factors is reduced. After all, what else are you there for other than to try and get the best out of the people who work with you?


Karthik Suresh

If You Can Make Money Doing What You Do Why Are You Teaching It?


Wednesday, 8.28pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach. – Aristotle

Everything is a business these days. Even things like the business of health and the business of knowledge. And when there is money to be made you get things that look like what you need but are different – that somehow don’t deliver what you’re really looking for. Of course, this isn’t helped by the fact that often we don’t know what we’re looking for or need in the first place.

I feel like a cranky old person, someone who is complaining that the way other people do things is wrong. Is that because I’m envious that they’re doing it and I’m not? Is it because I think they’re wrong and I’m right? Or is it that there is something just not right about the way we make a business of everything?

Maybe it’s a cultural thing. When I first came across the idea of Pay What You Want – that seemed the kind of thing that really gave users a choice. If you felt something had value you felt the obligation to pay for it. And it probably didn’t make anyone a great deal of money but it did give them an income of some kind.

Now, of course, there are arguments that it takes money to make anything and if you don’t treat it like a business then it won’t have any value. But then again, what is a business? The bits that add value are marketing and operations, as I think Drucker said. Everything else is a cost. If you can create a customer then you’re on your way to having a business, or at least something that is value adding.

Here’s the thing. How do you tell a real “business” from something that is simply a transfer of wealth from one person to another? Warren Buffett seems to have the answer to these sorts of questions in his many letters. In one he reminds us that “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” In another you have a story of a family – the Gotrocks – who might more accurately be called the Hadrocks. This is because they get hooked into paying for advice on how to handle their money. It’s worth reading the full story but the key takeaway is that the more activity there is the less your return. What you want to do is make a return as efficiently as possible in whatever you do. That’s the goal.

What this means when it comes to a person trying to convince you to learn from them is that if they were so good at doing what they say they do – then why aren’t they making money doing it rather than teaching you how to do it? I remember going to one of those “free” seminars where someone talks to you about Forex trading and how they’ll teach you everything you need to know about trading and making money almost risk free. Well, if it were that easy, surely they should do it and not tell everyone else? Or is it the more likely case that they make more money from your teaching fees than they do making trades with their own money?

The reason I’m wondering about this is that I like the idea of teaching – especially because it helps me learn better. But I don’t like the idea of teaching a secret, proprietary or some made-up method that has no grounding in research or practice. I am irritated by a particular person who has started a line of courses priced in the thousands of dollars that tries to create a certification program to teach something that, from what I have read of the material, is not good. But… if I think I can do better, shouldn’t I be doing that, rather than complaining? Shouldn’t people just make up their own minds?


I suppose when it comes down to it, experience is the best teacher. And then when you understand what your experience has taught you, perhaps then you can actually teach others. Because I think that the best teaching happens when what’s important is what you’re teaching and what the student learns – and it stops being about the teacher at all.

In fact, that makes it very simple to decide what’s good and bad. If you go to something where the teacher is the centre of everything then you’re the product, someone who is just there to pay for a performance. If you go to something where you’re the centre of it and the teacher helps you discover and practice, then there’s a chance that you’ll learn something valuable. And that will only happen when your teacher is confident enough about what they do and have done to put away any ego and focus on helping you become better. If you find one of those kinds of teachers stick with them.

It’ll be worth it.


Karthik Suresh

What Should You Do Or Not Do?


Monday, 9.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The most general law in nature is equity – the principle of balance and symmetry which guides the growth of forms along the lines of the greatest structural efficiency. – Herbert Read

Do you believe that if you work really hard at something you’ll be recognised and rewarded? That you’ll catch up with those in front of you? Overcome the benefits that people get because they’ve been born into wealthier families in the right parts of the world?

Maybe you will. The first choice you make, after all, is who your parents are and that sets an anchor – a point from where you begin and then you try and go as far as you must. Which for some people isn’t far at all. And for others it’s going to take a few lifetimes to get there.

I think the advice we get on what to do is too general, unrealistic even. Hard work is for suckers and let me explain why.

Work should be easy. If you want to build a house it makes no sense starting with your bare hands. There are tools out there that are better than your fingernails. Use them. In fact, you weren’t considering not using them. The last time you built a structure with your bare hands was probably a den, built from sticks stacked against a tree. But I’m willing to bet you aren’t living there now.

Work should be easy – if you’re spending too long on a spreadsheet, you’re probably doing it inefficiently. Ditto for putting up a stud wall or installing a washing machine or laying bricks. If you know what you’re doing then it’s easy. It takes time and sometimes you have to sweat a bit but if it’s really killing you then you should probably be getting some help.

But, if you want work to be easy you have to spend time learning, which can feel even harder. For a long time my only criteria for hiring analysts was if they could use the Excel function Vlookup – with the help of google and the rest of the Internet. If they could, then they could do pretty much anything. Or, more accurately, they could learn to do anything. The good jobs these days come down to being able to read, write, do arithmetic. Later on in your career it helps if you can speak to others as well.

If you want work to be easy you have to spend time reading and thinking. I learned today that what we call thinking is really just talking to yourself. That’s what I’m doing right now, except you can read that internal monologue as I talk to myself. We have a limited capacity for everything. Our capacity for speech processing, for example, is around two seconds of audio. We’re constantly swapping information in and out of the parts of our brain trying to make sense of things and the harder we make it the longer it takes to get done.

So you make it easy – by working harder on learning how to do that. If you learn your trade and learn it well then the work is easier to do. So maybe it should be learn hard, work easy?

Then again, you should work hard at certain things but not because they’re work. If you want to play an instrument then you need to practice. It’s the same if you want to write or paint or create something. I know a person who spends hours working on detailed art – and that’s because it’s a flow state where time ceases to have meaning and while it looks like hard work it’s something that doesn’t feel like it.

It’s not easy figuring out what to do. But maybe here’s the takeaway.

If you’re finding things hard, maybe you’re doing something wrong? And if that’s the case it’s probably something you can learn to do better.


Karthik Suresh

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