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Open Your Door
- Justin Phu
If you've asked how work has been going recently I'd answer with I feel incredibly distracted. Frequent meetings and context switching. Within the span of a few hours I'll be talking for five different people about five separate problems.
This seems to contradict one of the values I hold deeply which is you cannot improve without focusing deeply. I could feel these meetings I was having were important but I couldn't explain why1.
It was only after watching Richard Hamming's lecture You and Your Research did it click. Deep work is exceptionally effective when trying to execute on a problem. However, what do you do before you know what problem to solve? Finding the important problems requires a slightly different methodology.
Finding Important Problems
If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it? - Richard Hamming in "You and Your Research"
We all want to work on important problems. We want to make an impact on this world. However, how do we find these important problems?
Before we can even find important problems - what are they? Important problems cannot simply be looked at by their consequences. Figuring out teleportation has huge ramifications but isn't really categorized as important because we have no reasonable direction to attack the problem.
The importance of a problem is a combination of it's consequence and our confidence that we have an approach that will succeed in a timely manner.
The first phase of determining the important problems to work on is to find the problems! This requires a broad outlook on the space. Talking to people or customers directly here is incredibly effective due to the emphemeral nature of the conversation2. There are things people will tell you in person if you asked but otherwise wouldn't write down.
The second phase is given the set of problems, which one of these are important. That is, which one of these do we have timely attack for. This is where the line gets hazy. Deep work is incredibly effective when you have a clear line of sight of where you need to go. However, a general open problem requires a diverse set of opinions to uncover the truths behind the problem. The number of times where i've had a potential solution and a differing perspective surfaced a fatal flaw is quite large!
Finding important problems require a broad outlook with diverse opinions rather than focused deep work.
Now once you've found the important problem to work on you need to drop all other things and switch gears. Get yourself engulfed in the problem and remove all other distractions. The one thing on your mind is how are you executing towards solving this problem.
Deep work is exceptional for executing on an important problem.
Explore and Exploit
Another way to phrase the same concept is: problem solving is the recurring cycle of exploration and exploitation.
Exploring ideas and potential solutions requires absorbing a lot of context. It requires rapid trial and error over a large set of ideas. Exploiting has a heavier emphasis on going deep instead of broad. When you know where you're heading, all there is left to do is put in the hard work and get there.
There will be periods of time you switch back to exploration when during the exploitation phase you find out some assumptions that turned out not to be true. It is a never-ending balance.
3A Tennis Analogy
I love analogies and I love tennis. Let's explore the problem of needing to beat my next tennis opponent.
I can easily say a problem is, I need to have a 130mph serve. This definitely will have drastic consequences but probably isn't an important problem due to the difficulty in accomplishing such a feat in a timely manner.
So how do I figure out the important problems. This requires me to talk to my tennis coach, my dietician, my fitness coach etc. I have to understand the environment I'll be playing in (i.e. which court), the timing of the match (morning, afternoon), watch footage of my opponent and myself etc. There's a lot of things I need to context switch around to determine what are the important problems to focus on.
After all that analysis I determine my backhand cross-court is the most important problem. This is where we enter the exploitation phase. I need to work hard and deeply to improve my backhand.
Open Your Door
I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. - Richard Hamming in "You and Your Research"
I spent a long time antagonizing about my lack of focus time and not getting tangible work done. I felt like I wasn't being productive. I thought what I needed to work on was say "No"4 more often and be more protective of my time.
Writing this blog helped me understand that parts of my job has shifted. When I joined the team the important problems were handed to me. All I had to do was get them done. Deep work was essential.
I'm now more responsible for determining what the problems are. Using the same tool that is deep work to solve a fundamentally different problem is a recipe for disaster. I need to focus on recognizing when I'm in a phase of discovery and embracing the rapid context switching.
Keeping myself open to others who want to discuss and bring forth problems is essential. Even joining casual conversations at lunch or during social sessions are important. They provide an environment where individuals can speak freely where they might not in other situations.
There's a brilliant engineer that I know and whenever I want to talk to him about a topic, he drops what he's working on and talks to me. I can always freely tap him on the shoulder and ask any question. I couldn't understand why he would give up his time to help me with my silly problems. One aspect was he was simply kind and wanted to help me grow. Another aspect is it gives him visibility to the key problems engineers are going through. By being open he invited problems to be brought to his purview. Instead of looking at it as I was wasting his time, I was in fact saving him time by identifying problems in the system that needed addressing.
Open your door5 to invite new ideas, identify important problems and expand your mind.
There are 100 different reasons why I am having more meetings. I wanted to focus on only one key aspect in this blog. ↩
I've recently been taking more notes during 1:1's. However, writing this blog I wonder if this defeats the purpose of the 1:1. The other individual cannot be their authentic self with me writing down their every point. This is also something I'm thinking about with remote work. It would be great if all meetings we're recorded but would that impact what people will say in those meetings? Clubhouse did well here since the audio was emphemeral. You're either there or not to enable real conversations. ↩
This blog post is another great analogy. In order to find the topic I wanted to write about I did a lot of reading, watching videos and talking to others. When it got down to actually writing the post I removed all distractions and focused on writing. ↩
What's great is I just read "Hell Yeah or No" by Derek Sivers and I absolutely loved it. I'm starting to embrace that there is not one blanket solution to life. Being aware of the different traps and different methodologies will help you apply them appropriately! ↩
When we were still working in the office we had an open plan seating arrangement. In a sense, the door was always open. However, opening the door is more of how you behave. Are you open and inviting for others to discuss ideas with? ↩