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Learning from the Masters of Capital Allocation

Today I finished reading The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success. William N. Thorndike, Jr. profiled these CEOs:

The book describes how CEOs generated capital and executed creative approaches to capital allocation, and it reports their returns over a long period. I was familiar with Buffett but less so with the others. I took many notes on Murphy, Singleton, Malone, and Graham.

It was interesting to learn about Singleton’s strategy. It was the same as Buffett’s playbook, and Singleton was older than Buffett and deployed his strategies before Buffett did. Buffett has praised Singleton as one of the best businessmen ever, and I’d imagine many strategies that make Berkshire Hathaway successful were borrowed from Singleton’s playbook.

John Malone is the CEO I’m most unfamiliar with and most excited to learn more about. Malone recognized the predictability and high growth rate of the cable industry early. He used various strategies to build one of the largest cable distribution companies. He also helped seed various cable programming entrepreneurs, such as Bob Johnson of BET, and partnered with other cable entrepreneurs, including Ted Turner.

This book chronicles CEOs of publicly traded companies, so most examples don’t apply to early-stage entrepreneurs. But it does a good job of explaining capital allocation, including why it’s the most important job of a CEO, and quantifying the results of superior capital allocation by talented CEOs.

Capital allocation is a mindset and a skill all entrepreneurs should be aware of. For entrepreneurs seeking to grow their companies, capital allocation is a critical skill to master.

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Thoughts After Reading Getting Things Done

Today I finished reading Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Here are some high-level thoughts:

  • Ă€ la carte – Allen’s complete system, as described in the book, isn’t something I’d fully implement given my digital workstyle and other factors. However, as an Ă  la carte framework, I see lots of value. Allen details several concepts that can add immediate value. I implemented his 2-minute rule years ago and will implement others now.
  • Locus of control – People who want to drive the direction and outcome of their life (rather than having life happen to them) may see immediate value in several concepts in Allen’s framework.
  • Brain – Allen believes the brain is better suited to making connections between ideas and creating new ideas than to storing information. He cites a study to support this. I agree. I’m more creative and insightful when I’m not worrying about everything I’m managing. Allen’s framework is good for generating more ideas and insights.
  • Wisdom – Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge in a manner that aligns with the desired outcome. Wisdom means changed behavior and improved decision-making—knowing what to do and when to do it. President Hoover once said, “Wisdom consists not so much in knowing what to do in the ultimate as knowing what to do next.” Allen’s ideas around continuously and quickly identifying next actions can be powerful and accelerate the acquisition of wisdom.

I’m glad I revisited this book. I’m looking forward to testing ideas it triggered.

This book contains ideas that are useful for anyone looking to be highly productive and approach work in a disciplined way.

For founders looking for a better way to manage the inevitable chaos of company building, wanting more creative or strategic time, or wanting to be more in the driver’s seat of their life, the ideas in this book are a great starting point, and many are worth cloning.

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David Allen’s Bottom-Up Productivity Framework

I’m finishing David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Allen shares great concepts in his book. After reading more of his book, I picked up on a core concept, one I alluded to yesterday: his framework – working bottom up.

Allen believes it’s hard to take on new responsibilities, be creative, or think longer term until you’re effectively managing what’s already on your plate. To manage what’s on your plate, you must know the totality of what has your attention. Allen suggests capturing all lingering physical, digital, or mental “incompletes” and recording them in a system. This will give you a clear picture of everything on your plate.

After that, you’ll “clarify,” which I mentioned yesterday, then “organize” to put everything where it belongs, and then “reflect” periodically to review and update your incompletes. I won’t get into the specifics of each step. But notice that everything so far has focused on current, ground-floor activity.

After this, you’re ready to “engage” and start making action choices. Allen provides three priority frameworks to help manage action in a bottom-up manner. This is counter to how many approach this. Here they are (listed bottom up, of course):

Now: Choosing Action in the Moment

When you have time to accomplish something, this framework helps pinpoint what to work on.

  • Context – What are your circumstances? Are you at your desk in the office, on a plane, or in a lobby waiting for a meeting to begin?
  • Time – How much time do you have available?
  • Energy – What’s your energy level? Are you in top form or in low-energy state?
  • Priority – What’s the most important task?

Many people waste time trying to figure out what to work on. Going through this framework sequentially helps you quickly identify what to work on (you will have already categorized tasks that can be only done in a particular context, for instance, so you can ignore everything else for the time being). It’s helpful when you have free time you didn’t anticipate.

Today: Evaluating Daily Work

Throughout the day, you’ll likely be engaged in one of these three work types:

  • Doing predefined work – Doing something on a next-action list is a good example.
  • Doing work as it shows up – Having an impromptu chat with a direct report or responding to an email requesting a status report are examples.
  • Defining your work – Reviewing a project and adding tasks to your next-action list is a way to define your work.

The goal is to manage your total inventory of work in a balanced manner, instead of only reacting to unexpected work. Deciding what to work on is a balancing act that relies on your intuition. But having the habit of defining and refining your work helps your intuition by crystallizing what you’re saying no to when an unexpected task arises.

Reviewing Your Work

On a regular basis, you should review your work. Starting at the bottom, of course.

  • Ground – Confirm that all your lists of next actions are current. You want to make sure you’re not missing anything. For example, call brother.
  • Horizon 1 – Confirm that your projects list captures all commitments requiring more than one action. The goal is to capture short-term commitments so you can free your mind. For example, onboard new hire.
  • Horizon 2 – Confirm that all your areas of focus and responsibilities are captured on a list. For example, parenting. This level will determine what projects you start.
  • Horizon 3 – Define your direction and intentions over the next one to two years.
  • Horizon 4 – Paint a vision of life in three or more years.
  • Horizon 5 – Define your life’s purpose.

Horizons 3–5 focus on the future; the others, more on the present. The goal is to get and keep the nearer horizons current so you have the mental bandwidth to think about the more distant horizons.

I see the value for most, not all, people in Allen’s bottom-up process. It’s a great approach to working productively and intentionally by getting the mundane under control so you’ll have the bandwidth to gain clarity in the long term. His approach is well suited for those working for an organization.

For entrepreneurs creating and growing companies, tweaking is required. Entrepreneurs usually start with a problem and craft a vision of what the world could look like if they solve that problem. Then, they figure out how to solve that problem and craft a mission to scale that solution. After that’s done, that’s when embracing Allen’s bottom-up work approach and iteratively turning a vision and mission into reality makes sense for entrepreneurs.

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David Allen’s Ideas about Getting Things Done

Reading about personal knowledge management (PKM) and reading books by Tiago Forte, I became interested in how PKM and productivity can help get more done. I decided to read up on productivity frameworks. Years ago, I read Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. I remember it only vaguely and decided to revisit it. Learning that an updated version had been released, I bought it.

I haven’t finished it yet, but a few of the concepts he writes about have caught my attention. Here are two:

Clarifying

Allen evaluates incoming information based on its actionability, who should execute a task, and how long it will take to accomplish. If something isn’t actionable, trash it, “incubate” it until it becomes actionable, or store it for reference. He has a 2-minute rule for actionable items: anything actionable that you can do in less than 2 minutes should be handled on the spot. Anything that can’t be handled in 2 minutes should be delegated to the appropriate person or deferred to a time when you’ll do it. He has a nice flowchart in the book that simplifies his clarification process.

I’ve used this approach to handling email for some time, aiming to be inbox zero every day. I’m a big fan of my email app’s “remind me” feature. I queue up tasks and email responses that will take more than 2 minutes and handle them at times I’ve dedicated to this predetermined work. This approach has helped keep my inbox tame, ensure that nothing falls through the cracks, and allowed me to be more proactive by doing this kind of work as I deem appropriate.

Identifying Next Actions

For projects with multiple steps and a clearly defined goal, Allen advocates constantly asking, Is there something someone could be doing on this right now? Asking this question continuously surfaces the next actions, keeping a project moving forward.

People sometimes have project plans defining actions to take and when to take them. However, the problem with those plans is twofold. First, they’re hypothetical. Those plans are often crafted before execution begins. They don’t consider current real-world reality. Second, if a team is involved, they’re likely to be top-down. The people executing the work have little or no input into how they achieve the goal for which they’re responsible.

Allen’s approach is more of an iterative bottom-up approach. It reminds me of Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong’s analogy of climbing a mountain shrouded in fog. The goal is defined, but the path to get there is flexible. The next action always reflects the current realities and incorporates learnings from previous actions. For teams, this approach empowers members closest to ground level to pinpoint and take the best action at any given time.

The iteration that results from Allen’s approach of asking this question constantly is more powerful than most people realize. This approach is how the impossible becomes possible. It’s how people successfully navigate uncertainty. It’s progress toward a stated goal with constant recalibration.

I hope to share other good concepts from the book in another post. I’m looking forward to finishing the book.

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Why I’m Testing Checklists

After reading Tiago Forte’s book Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential, I digested the PARA and CODE concepts. Part of my process was to see whether other credible people mentioned any of the same ideas Forte did. When multiple unrelated credible people reach the same conclusion through trial and error, their wisdom is often worth paying attention to.

One of Forte’s ideas—that using checklists in your process is valuable—met that criterion. Forte mentioned using checklists to ensure that you’re starting and finishing projects consistently. In a post last week, I shared that Josh Kauffman, in his book, recommended checklists to prevent omissions when learning about and acquiring a new skill rapidly. I also remember Charlie Munger’s “Investing Principles Checklist” from Poor Charlie’s Almanac: The Essential Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger.

I know checklists work—they were key components of the processes at my e‑commerce company. The teams followed them to ensure that we executed processes consistently. We became known for our reliability and built a solid reputation because of it. Sadly, I never applied checklists to my work style. I keep in my head an idea of how I need to execute things I do more than once, but I haven’t always executed consistently on some of them, even though I consider them important.

Today, I decided I’m going to test using checklists for things of high importance that aren’t one-offs. I’ll spend some time thinking about what deserves a checklist (I don’t want to go crazy with this) and then thoughtfully create the checklists. I’ll test using them and adjust as necessary. I’ll also make sure using checklists is lightweight and doesn’t bog down my workflow.

I’m excited about this experiment and can’t wait to see the results. My gut tells me it’ll have a positive impact given that smart, credible people use checklists.

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Tiago Forte’s Framework for Actionable Knowledge

I finished reading Tiago Forte’s book Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential. Yesterday I shared Forte’s PARA method for managing information you consume. I’m still learning about this method and comparing it to others. I may end up modifying my current approach and borrowing some aspects of PARA.

Today I want to zoom out a bit and share the central concept of Forte’s book: his method for capturing and storing information in a “second brain” and then using it as needed. The second brain is “an external, centralized, digital repository for the things you learn and the resources from which they come.” Forte’s approach is called CODE. Here are its pillars:

  • Capture – Capture information and ideas that could be useful later—but only what resonates with you. Forte thinks of it as creating a knowledge bank from all the various sources we encounter on a regular basis (email, podcasts, etc.). Instead of trying to remember all this information, store it digitally.
  • Organize – Organize the information you’ve captured in such a way that it’s actionable. The PARA method is a significant component of this step.
  • Distill – Find the essence of the information you’ve gathered. What’s the core concept or wisdom? Forte uses the progressive summarization technique to find the core and enhance its discoverability for future reference.
  • Express – Express what you’ve learned in smaller chunks, even if everything hasn’t been completed. Forte calls these chunks Intermediate Packets. One thing they’re good for is sharing with others to solicit feedback quickly. He views them as building blocks that are intellectual assets and can be reused in the future.

Forte’s approach doesn’t include anything we haven’t seen or heard before, but it combines components in a simple way that encourages you to think about how to use a second brain to turn information into actionable knowledge.

If you’re interested in learning more, Forte shared a detailed blog post on CODE.

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Tiago Forte’s Framework for Organizing Digital Information

An entrepreneur friend shared with me that he uses the methods of Tiago Forte to organize all the information he consumes. He suggested Forte’s book Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential. It sounded interesting, so I ordered it.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but one method it mentions has already caught my attention. Forte calls it the PARA method, and it’s his flexible approach to managing digital information on various platforms. The idea is to create four top-level folders to manage all incoming information you consume. Here are the main parts of the method:

  • Projects  – Things you’re currently working on in the short-term. Ideally, you have a goal in mind for each project. Think implementing a payroll system or hiring a contractor.
  • Areas – Responsibilities you must manage. They’re ongoing and essential to you. Think managing your finances or direct reports.
  • Resources – Topics you’re interested in but not actively working on. Think cooking, fashion, or customer discovery.
  • Archives – Inactive items from the above three categories.

An important part of this method is that information is grouped based on how actionable it is, which makes sense to me. Another thing I like about this system is that nothing is lost; everything can be retrieved in the future if it’s needed. The archive folder serves as a repository.

I’ll continue learning about the PARA system, but so far it seems very flexible, and it isn’t complex, which is attractive to me.

If you’re interested in learning more, you can read Forte’s blog post about PARA.

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Framework Books and Tactical Learning

I’ve been enjoying reading more. Usually, I read biographies and recounts of historical financial events, but this weekend, I spent time with what I would consider a framework book. The author gives readers his framework for managing and using all the digital information they consume.

I initially considered framework books as self-help, which I tend to shy away from because I don’t get much value from them. But after this weekend, I revisited my thinking on that. I realized that framework books aren’t self-help, and I do get value from them—in specific situations, not generally. These framework books are tools for tactical learning, while biographies and historical books are for general learning. Framework books are useful if I have a problem I’m actively trying to solve. They don’t solve my problem for me, but they give me an approach or method that, if followed, empowers me to solve my problem more efficiently.

I still enjoy reading biographies more than any other genre. However, I recognize the value of framework books when I’m trying to solve a specific problem. I won’t read them when I’m interested in general learning, but they’re part of my tactical learning toolbox going forward.

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First Impressions of Personal Knowledge Management

I have a problem storing all the important things I learn from the books, videos, articles, and other content I consume. A founder friend shared with me how he does it: he uses a variety of tools cobbled together. Doing some digging on the tools he uses and their competitors, I stumbled upon a world focused on this problem: personal knowledge management (PKM).

This world is new to me, and I was curious. I spent time this weekend watching PKM experts explain the frameworks, systems, and processes they use in their daily lives. A few early thoughts after today’s learnings:

  • PKM is niche but seems to have gained momentum around 2020-ish.
  • PKM is different from productivity management, but both were incorporated into many PKM experts’ systems.
  • A ton of tools help with PKM, but they all do things differently. No one tool can do everything, so cobbling tools together is the norm.
  • People consume information from so many different sources that it’s hard for one tool to be great at capturing all of it.
  • The need to cobble together tools increases complexity. There are just too many systems and moving pieces for the average person to manage. This decreases the likelihood that someone will adopt PKM.
  • Embracing the PKM approach that “experts” demonstrated requires a high degree of consistency in process execution. There isn’t a lot of room for error.
  • I expected AI to be mentioned and utilized significantly. It wasn’t.

I’m still learning about this, but I get the sense that PKM can get rigid and complex very quickly. In my experience, rigidity and complexity often lead to spending more time managing the system than getting value from the system. I don’t want to use anything rigid and complex.

PKM isn’t the same as productivity management, yet many people combined the two in the approaches I watched today. My gut feeling is that this isn’t the right approach for me. My task management will likely be more effective if it’s managed separately in a simple and loose system than as part of a PKM system.

I haven’t reached a verdict on PKM yet, but I think a better use of my time going forward is to learn about the frameworks and methods used in PKM. If I find a framework I like and want to use, it may be better for me to create a simple, flexible system that suits me instead of copying a complex, rigid system developed by someone else.

PKM is still new to me. What I learned today was useful and gave me a good idea of what PDK is and how people are using it. There’s a lot I don’t know about PDK, and I’m not sure if it’s something I’ll adopt. But I’m curious to learn more so I can determine whether it’s for me.

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Principles for Rapid Skill Acquisition and Learning

I want to share more takeaways from The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!. The major premise of the book, which I posted about yesterday, is that learning and skill acquisition are different. By combining the two, you accelerate your acquisition of a new skill. I found author Josh Kauffman’s thinking around the specifics of each area and how they work together interesting.

Skill acquisition

Kauffman defines rapid skill acquisition as the process of breaking down a skill into its smallest parts, pinpointing the important ones, and practicing those key subskills first. He believes “temporary obsession” aids skill acquisition and that “rapid skill acquisition principles” are a way to cultivate temporary obsession. Here’s a checklist of his acquisition principles:

  • Choose a lovable project – Pick a skill you’re excited about. Your excitement will fuel you when you’re frustrated.
  • Focus your energy on one skill at a time – Acquiring new skills requires concentrated time and focused attention. If you spread yourself too thin, your skill acquisition will likely be extremely slow.
  • Determine your performance level – Rapid skill acquisition is about sufficiency, not perfection. Define what sufficiency means to you.
  • Deconstruct skills into subskills – Identify what subskills make up this skill.
  • Obtain critical tools – Get the tools necessary for you to practice the skill.
  • Eliminate barriers to practice – Remove the soft barriers that will make it more difficult to practice the skill.
  • Make dedicated time for practice – Schedule time to practice consistently. Commit to practicing regularly until you’ve completed at least twenty hours of practice.
  • Create fast feedback loops – Figure out ways to learn how you’re performing when you’re practicing. The faster the feedback, the faster you can make the right adjustments. The faster you adjust, the faster you acquire the skill.
  • Practice by the clock in short bursts – Set a timer for twenty or thirty minutes for your practice session.
  • Emphasize quantity over speed – Do as many reps as you can without worrying about perfection. The more reps, the better your rep quality will become.

Learning

Learning about a skill is the acquisition of knowledge related to that skill. Kauffman doesn’t believe jumping straight into practicing a new skill is the most efficient approach. Doing some advance research and planning can reduce the amount of time and energy you’ll have to expend and the frustration you feel. He believes “learning principles” help you get the most out of your practice sessions. Here’s a checklist of his learning principles:

  • Research the skill and related topics – Look for patterns—the same ideas and tools being mentioned repeatedly as you research. These will likely reduce your trial and error.
  • Jump in over your head – You want to learn at an uncomfortable pace. Confusion is part of being uncomfortable and can pinpoint areas you should focus on more.
  • Identify mental models and mental hooks – Look for ways to help you make sense of what you’re seeing. These mental models will help you understand the present and what the future could hold if you take specific actions. These will come in handy during practice.
  • Imagine the opposite of what you want – Determining your goal’s natural opposite can highlight what to avoid. This is called inversion and is a technique Charlie Munger embraced heavily.
  • Talk to practitioners to set expectations – Unrealistic expectations can be discouraging. Talking to others with more experience can illuminate blind spots so you’ll know what to expect.
  • Eliminate distractions – Distractions can ruin focused practice, slowing or stopping skill acquisition. Figure out what could distract you during practice and eliminate it beforehand.
  • Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorization – Review important information regularly. New or difficult information should be reviewed more often; familiar or simple information less.
  • Create scaffolds and checklists – Create checklists to systematize your practice process and make it more consistent. Create a pre-practice sequence (i.e., a scaffold) to ensure that you approach the skill the same way each time you start practicing. A basketball player’s pre–free throw routine is a good example of a scaffold.
  • Make and test predictions – Come up with your predictions based on your research and test them as you practice. Adjust accordingly.
  • Honor your biology – If your mind and body aren’t good, your practice won’t be good. Put yourself in the best physical and mental state to get the most out of your practice.

Every principle won’t apply to every situation, but going through each checklist can prevent omissions that could hamper you from achieving your goal.

Acquiring a skill is the result of practicing it. How you practice impacts how fast you acquire the skill. Learning makes your practice more efficient and accelerates acquisition, but it doesn’t replace it. There is no replacement for practice. You must do the work. But how you go about it matters.

The insight and principles in Kauffman’s book aren’t earth-shattering, but his combination and articulation of them could provide clarity and an action plan to people who struggle to acquire new skills.

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