May 26 2011

The Importance of Paying Attention

Carlos Portocarrero

car in a ditch

There were two outs and runners were on second and third. Last inning, we’re up by 10+ runs. Our pitcher was having problems throwing strikes and the other team had already gotten a few runs across.

Nobody was nervous yet (we had a really big lead and it was the final inning, two outs) but there was a feeling that we should just close this out before it gets hairy.

I’m the shortstop and I notice the runner on second isn’t really paying attention. So I start creeping towards second base. The pitcher sees me and whips around, firing the ball right at the base. The runner sees it, but it’s too late—he gets picked off for the third out.

Game over.

Pay Attention at All Times

It’s something so simple, and yet so many of us don’t do it. We distract ourselves with constantly checking our email (I’m guilty of it too), thinking about other things, or just plain spacing out.

It can have really serious repercussions at work, but paying attention is also becoming a lost art in everyday settings like a simple conversation with another person.

Paying Attention at Work

Imagine you’re in a meeting with a bunch of other people and you know this particular subject has very little to do with you—so you’re sitting there staring out the window trying to figure out if you have any Hot Pockets left in the freezer at home and whether or not the Bulls should play Kyle Korver tonight against the Heat.

“What’s your opinion on this, Smith?”

You guessed it: you’re Smith.

What do you do? What do you say? The right answer is probably: “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

Either way, it’s pretty obvious you weren’t paying attention and it’s going to reflect poorly on you. Even worse, you might miss something that does have to do with a project you’re involved in and that could wind up being a disaster.

Paying Attention is Easy

The guy that got picked off of second base should’ve been paying attention, but he wasn’t. When you’re at work, pay attention. When someone is talking to you, pay attention.

It’s very easy to do because it’s something you can control.

There are so many other variables out there that you can’t control, that it doesn’t make sense to neglect something so basic and easy to do. You hear it in baseball all the time: speed never slumps. Paying attention doesn’t have to either.

You can’t control what projects are assigned to you or the quarterly revenue your company makes or any of those things—but you can pay attention.

Right now I’m looking out the window and the trees are swaying like crazy, the sky is cement grey, and the wind is howling.

Can I control the weather? Of course not.

But I can at least bring an umbrella to weather the storm because I’m paying attention to what’s going on out there.

Image by TimothyJ

Mar 25 2011

Excel and Efficiency

Carlos Portocarrero

Excel Logo

When I was reading every investment book I could get my hands on, I spent a fair amount of time on a website devoted to Phil Town’s investing book, Rule #1. In it, he had a series of calculations that, when met, told him a stock was a buy.

It was a play on value investing and the way Warren Buffett picks stocks, but grabbing all the data from the different financial sites and doing the math was time consuming. And of course very few companies met all the criteria so it was a lot of work with very little payoff.

Anyway, someone on this forum decided to create a spreadsheet that did all the work. And I mean ALL the work.

All you had to do was make sure you had an Internet connection, type in a symbol, and hit enter.

A wonderful thing started to happen: numbers started flowing into all of the various tabs along the bottom. Charts started to form. Cells began to change color. Disease and famine were obliterated.

And on the last tab there was a number that told you what this stock’s true price was (according to his system), and whether or not it was a buy.

It literally took me an hour to do this for each company, and Excel had done it in a few seconds.

Of course, someone with a lot of knowledge and skill had set this spreadsheet up, but I was amazed at how many hours of time this document could save me.

And this was Excel! A piece of software I dreaded using because I thought all it could do was create boring charts that boring people used in their boring presentations.

I had underestimated this piece of software and I started to see why it was so expensive.

My latest run-in with Excel at work showed me how valuable this program can be…all you need is a little bit of knowledge, some patience, and it can take you pretty far.

Microsoft Excel: I salute you.

Jan 20 2011

What NFL Quarterbacks can Teach Us About Productivity

Carlos Portocarrero

Jay Cutler

It’s third down and goal, the Bears are down by five with 13 seconds left, and quarterback Jay Cutler takes one last look at the defense before yelling, “Hike!”

He fakes a handoff and steps back to pass and looks to his right. That’s the first option on the play he called in the huddle: it was designed for tight-end Greg Olsen to score the game-winning touchdown.

He fakes left—just like the play calls for him to do—and then looks back at the spot Greg Olsen is running to.

But there’s a problem: Greg Olsen is covered and even notoriously gun-slinging Jay Cutler can’t see a way to get him the ball.

Seeing that there is no play, he tucks the ball into his side, sits down in the backfield, puts his headphones in his ears, and jams out to a little Nirvana as the other team’s defensive linemen bear down on him.

This is how careless most of us are with our time.

When things don’t go as planned, we give up and do something unproductive.

This despite the fact that we all complain that we don’t just don’t have the time to do the things we want to do.

Commuting to Work

Lots of people try to be as productive as possible during the “dead time” they spend commuting to work. Some people catch up on email, others read a book, and some just stare out the window and daydream of a better, more fulfilling job to commute to.

Personally, I try to get as much writing done as possible.

That’s why I take my netbook with me everywhere I go—you never know when I’ll get a seat and have a chance to crank out some copy.

Most of us probably have things we like to get done when we’re on the train (or anywhere else), but what happens when those plans are interrupted?

What happens when our first option is blocked?

If I get on the train and can’t get a seat, there’s no way I can get my netbook out and type away (although it would be pretty entertaining to watch me try). And it’s really easy to just give up on being productive, listen to some Cee-Lo, and enjoy my ride.

But that’s not what professional athletes do and that’s not what you should do if you’re serious about being productive and finding the time to get things done.

Jay Cutler would never just put his headphones on and listen to some music—he would quickly check down to his secondary receivers to see what other options are available to him.

  • Is Matt Forte open after pretending to take the handoff and blocking a couple of guys?
  • Did Devin Hester find an opening in the back of the end zone?
  • Oh look! The guy covering Johnny Knox slipped and fell.

Cutler fires it in and the Bears score with no time left on the clock.

Bears win…Super Bowl time!

The Lesson

Always be prepared. You need to have a backup plan at all times, and you’ll most likely need a plan C and plan D.

At some point, you’re going to need them all. Ask any new parent and they’ll tell you—preparation is key if you want to avoid some really terrible (and messy) situations.

This applies to anything that has to do with getting things done, whether it’s writing during your commute or getting errands done on the weekend.

Here is how I play it on my commute:

Plan A: Find a seat and open up the Netbook. Try to hammer out 1,500 words.

Plan B: Can’t find a seat? Take out my smart phone and catch up on emails at work, for my site, etc. The goal is to get through some email so when I get to work I don’t spend as much time on it and I can get other stuff done. It’s tough to resist the temptation to check scores, scope out the feed reader, etc. But you do it.

Plan C: Still can’t find a seat? Not many emails to get through? Take out my New Yorker magazine and get some reading in. I’ll typically find a couple of things that are interesting enough to write about later on. Underline anything I want to remember…otherwise I will forget.

Plan D: No seat? No emails? No magazine? Put on the headphones, stare out the window, and relax. Hey, sometimes we have to stop being productive, clear our mind, and take a break.

In order to be as productive as we can, we need to always be prepared, but we also need to know when to take a break and relax a little.

Image by Monica’s Dad