Work First, Critique Second


Have you even been so intently focused on what you’re doing that you lose track of time? This is of course what researchers refer to as “flow” or “getting in the zone.” In a recent FastCo Labs article, Leanne Butkovic explains the science of exactly what’s going on in our brains when we get in the zone:

The precuneus, the part of the brain associated with self-reflection and argued to be the most important for consciousness, is very active in these moments of creative output…[it's] also considered to be the hub of the ‘default mode’ network of the brain–the systems which work without you intentionally thinking about it. This mode is in contrast to the ‘executive faculty,’ which [is] what psychologists call our capacities for attention and reason. During states of ‘normalcy,’ we are in control of our focuses and thought processes. When you’re in the zone, this changes: Your inner monologue, co-opted by the default mode network, runs off in manic glee while the executive network effectively deactivates.

Getting in the zone is all about being in a state where our attention and thoughts are uninhibited. The best way to get into that state? Placing yourself into situations where the work can come about without much concentration. For example: writing quickly without evaluating what you’re writing or drawing without worrying where the pen is going. In other words: to experience flow, save critiquing your work for later, focus instead on freely creating first.

Explore all of the science about your brain in the zone right here.

Previously on flowNot Too Hard, Not Too Easy: Finding Flow In Your Work

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Makers vs. Talkers & Why Now Is a Great Time for Creatives to Lead


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Research has shown that creatives aren’t often given the opportunity to lead because there’s an unconscious bias against them. People associate creativity with nonconformity and unconventionality. And when they think about an effective leader, they think about someone who brings order. Obviously if you believe that a leader’s role is to bring order, you wouldn’t want a creative to lead. (Of course, this has nothing to do with whether creatives actually can lead, it’s just a bias many of us have.)

What’s interesting is that these qualities which have typically biased folks against creatives as leaders — that they’re unconventional, unorthodox, and full of un-tested new ideas about the way things should be done — are actually turning into assets when we look at today’s work and business landscape and how it’s evolving. 

I recently spoke with design guru John Maeda about why makers make great leaders for our new 99U book Make Your Mark:

The transition from maker to leader is a big challenge for many creative people. What do you think that’s about?

When you make things with your hands, you force something into being. You sand it, you cut it, you fold it . . . You do everything to build it from end to end. Whereas leading requires a lot of talking, a lot of communicating—not using your hands. And when you’re a creative who makes things, you immediately build a distinction between the talkers and the makers. And makers tend to look down on talkers. And leaders are talkers. You don’t trust them, but now you’re one of them. [laughs] At first you think you can’t make anything with your hands anymore. But you can. You make relationships. One at a time. With the same painstaking attention to craft that you knew as a maker.

Do you think that part of the struggle is that when you become a leader you become more removed from direct ownership of the product?

I don’t think that it’s just ownership. It’s about integrity, and how you’re framing what those different roles mean. If I’m a maker, and you’re not a maker, I’m better than you because I have integrity, and you don’t. You’re just talking. So it’s about a necessary reframing of your “maker” role. You no longer get your hands dirty or clothes messed up as a badge of belonging. As a leader, you are alone—and accountable for the needs of the whole. The whole is the product. And you’re making it. You own it. And you succeed and fail by it.

Does this relentless focus on integrity have an upside when it comes to leading a business?

I think the pursuit of integrity is a good thing, because it isn’t about profit—it’s only about quality. Companies need a very clear sort of compass to succeed, and when profit is the motivation, it isn’t enough. Creatives are driven by passion, by integrity, and by quality. So they know how to focus on product, and how it feels. And that’s a very important strength. Especially right now. It used to be that you would buy a product just because it had good technology. You didn’t care about the design. But that’s not the case anymore.

It seems like, in theory, the ideal leader would be a maker, a manager, and a leader. Do you think that those things all coexist in one person with any kind of frequency?

I don’t know about frequency, but I know about growth and how people evolve. Given the current environment, I think that people are being forced to change. A few decades ago, when things were more stable, we could all just sort of stay in our little roles. But now the pace of change is so rapid, and things are confusing. So we have to just try stuff. And fail. And recover, and try again. If there’s one skill that a leader needs, it’s the attitude espoused by the late, great Nelson Mandela, “Do not judge me by my successes; judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” Creatives know that attitude so well—and manage ambiguity better than anyone else. And combined with the ability to execute, to really get things done, they’re in a great position to lead.

This post is excerpted from 99U’s new book, Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide to Building a Business with Impact, which features insights from 21 visionary founders, designers, and entrepreneurs. Learn more.

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Beware of Perception Gaps

By Marco Leo

By Marco Leo

Small misunderstandings can sometimes morph into larger misconceptions, which can then snowball into full-blow falsehoods that ultimately erode trust, credibility and transparency. A small perception gap can significantly impact performance down the road. The disconnect between what you want to say and what is actually said is what Anne Loehr, author of A Manager’s Guide to Coaching: Simple and Effective Ways to Get the Best from Your Employees, calls as the “Perception Gap.”

She suggests that we structure clarity into our process in order to avoid it:
  1. At the beginning of a call or meeting, state: “My intention for this meeting/call is X.” That way, the team or team member can frame the meeting content within the stated intentions.
  2. At the end of the meeting or call, ask for feedback by saying “My intention for this meeting/call was X. How did I do?” This reiterates your intention to the team, and creates a welcoming environment for clarifying questions.
  3. Listen carefully to the reply to see if there is a Perception Gap.

Be aware of how you are communicating, and with whom. Get to know your teammates’ communication styles and aim to communicate in a manner that they are more likely to receive accurately and positively. Remember that simple conversations can have a negative impact on not just performance, but on relationships as well. 

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Want Busy People to Respond to Your Email? Keep It Short & Urgent

By Antonio Rodrigues Jr

By Antonio Rodrigues Jr

Have you ever emailed someone who is extremely busy, only to hear back several days (or weeks) later? Or perhaps you didn’t hear back at all? Busy people are difficult to reach via email, because you’re asking them to part with their most valuable resource of all: time.

In a guest post for OkDork, business coach John Corcoran shared how he got the attention of App Sumo founder Noah Kagan via email. The trick to capturing the attention of the busy executive was a sense of urgency:

I said the interview would take only 5-7 minutes of his time. If you’re asking for something, you want to make the commitment so small and the benefit so great, they can’t possibly pass it up. I think Noah probably realized it was likely the interview would run longer than 5-7 minutes, but it’s good to demonstrate your willingness to keep the time demand commitment short out of respect for your recipient’s time. And in fact, when I did interview Noah, I offered multiple times to cut off the interview but he allowed it to go longer.

In a study commissioned by author Dan Pink for his book, To Sell Is Human, workers reported that as part of their job, they spent 40 percent of their time trying to convince someone to part with resources of some kind (what Pink calls “non-sales selling”). And much of that is accomplished using email. 

Corcoran says that when you’re writing an email, you want to make the commitment so small and the benefit so great that the recipient finds the offer hard to refuse. So instead of asking for half an hour of someone’s time, ask for a handful minutes. Instead of writing, “I’d love to grab coffee,” say “I could pop by your office for a couple of minutes.”


Relevant: How To Ask People for Things Via Email: An 8-Step Program

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Can’t Fall Asleep? Do a Nighttime Audit

By Dadu Shin

By Dadu Shin

Almost half the people you’ll run into today are suffering from some level of sleep deprivation. This is largely because we don’t know when (or how) to call it a night. Tethered to our devices, work more often than not spills into the precious time that we need to decompress and prepare for a good night’s sleep.

Ron Friedman, author of The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, suggests that we conduct a “nighttime audit” to better understand where we’re going wrong:
Do a nighttime audit of how you spend your time after work. For one or two evenings, don’t try to change anything—simply log everything that happens from the moment you arrive home until you go to bed. What you may discover is that instead of eliminating activities that you enjoy and are keeping you up late (say, watching television between 10:30 and 11:00), you can start doing them earlier by cutting back on something unproductive that’s eating up your time earlier on (like mindlessly scanning Facebook between 8:30 and 9:00).
It’s not a matter of giving things up, so much as simply rescheduling them. Avoid burnout by understanding how to set yourself up for the expert-recommended minimum 30 minutes that you need to wind down before attempting to sleep.

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Know the Difference Between Having Focus (Noun) vs. Focus (Verb)

By Michael Dales

By Michael Dales

As the story goes, Bill Gates first met Warren Buffett at a dinner. Gates’ mother (and dinner host) asked everyone around the table to identify what they believed to be the most important factor in their success. The two moguls gave the same answer: “Focus.” 

An advocate for focus in work, life and leadership, Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, believes that many people mistakenly believe that there’s only one type of focus, when there are in fact two. We often miss the nuance and depth associated with the concept of focus:

Focus as a Noun. 
When people speak of focus they usually mean having a single goal. It is a static thing, a thing you have. This kind of focus conjures pictures of Roger Bannister relentlessly pursuing his goal of breaking the four-minute mile, John F. Kennedy challenging NASA to put a man on the moon within a decade or, coming back to Bill Gates, a vision of a personal computer on every desk. The upside to this kind of focus is clear and compelling: you pursue a single objective and don’t get distracted along the way; you build momentum as many different people aligned behind achieving this one goal.

Focus as a Verb. 
Focus is not just something you have it is also something you do. This type of focus is not static; it is an intense, dynamic, ongoing, iterative process. This kind of focus conjures pictures of Steve Jobs saying to Jony Ive day after day, “This might be crazy, but what if we…” until once in a while the idea took the air out of the room. It’s the constant exploration needed to see what is really going on and what the “noun focus” should be.

Focus is a powerful attribute, especially in a world that is tirelessly trying to compete for your time, energy, and attention. McKeown says that if we want to direct ourselves toward what’s essential, then we need to develop both kinds of focus. It’s the only way to confidently answer the question, “What’s important now?”

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Make a Good Impression: Introduce Yourself by Who You Help

By Leah Pavkov

By Leah Pavkov

Introductions are crucial. As the adage goes, “first impressions are lasting impressions.”  Neuroscientists even found that 7 percent of what people think of you is cemented upon meeting you for the first time.

This explains our aversion to name-droppers, ramblers or the people making it rain business cards at networking events – the “dirty” networkers. Bernard Marr, author of Doing More with Less  recommends a simple adjustment to our personal introductions to make a good impression:

Instead of leading with what you do, lead with who you help. As in, “Hi, my name is Bernard, and I help companies identify and make the best use of their key performance indicators and big data.” Done. You know who I am, what I do, and more importantly, whether or not I can help you or someone you know.

Human beings make snap decisions – our brains are hardwired in this way as a prehistoric survival mechanism. However we can use this to our advantage by focusing on how we help others, rather than flaunting how well we’ve helped ourselves.


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