April 12, 2015

My First Personal Quarterly Off-site

Get Yourself Back In The Busy World

I tend to believe I know what I’m doing, where I’m going, I’m in the control of my life, but that’s not the truth and it’s really easy to derail from the path you committed to go by living with a demanding work and all sorts of unknown encounters.

The most dangerous thought you can have as a creative person is to think you know what you’re doing. - Alan Key

I think I found a good way to organize and regain the control of it.

Review For Yourself

If you work on a corporate company you must be familiar with the annual or quarterly performance review and evaluation, often times it’s mandatory, and it’s officially scheduled in your and your organization’s calendar. Process varies but I always feel that’s not really reflecting myself, that’s only a tiny part of the professional work, why don’t I do it for myself not for anyone else, to tru?

So last Friday I took one day off for this “Personal Quarterly Off-site”, to review my last 90 days of personal and professional life and set goals and plans for next 90 days. The end result was so great, I got way more than I expected, never thought I could get that much out of myself. Besides the basic concept, I’ll also share the process and tips I found that works for me.

What Is Personal Quarterly Off-site

I heard it from the podcast, Greg McKeown the author of the best selling Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, which is one of my favorite, introduced his idea of it.

Every 90 days, you take a day. You evaluate what you’ve been doing during the last 90 days. You have what I call the most important hour of your life, which is when you go through a set of questions. Then you set your (very few) goals for the next 90 days to make sure you’re in alignment with what you really want to do ultimately with your life. This is it.

Strategy 1: Schedule it

This is the first step and perhaps the most important step. I didn’t do it immediately after I heard the idea, even though I felt interesting. I intentionally scheduled it for 1 week later, and told my boss I’m gonna that day off in advance.

Until that day I chose some of my favorite podcasts, book highlights and articles to read related to the topic, by consciously telling myself, that day is coming and I’m gonna do some serious work, I was able to let my brain be prepared subsconciously. It builds up the right mindset in the downtime too. I also shared that schedule to get some peer pressure.

One thing needs to mention, very soon there’s a deadline in my current project, it wasn’t easy to bring it up in this season and I did feel somehow guilty about being absent while others working hard to meet the deadline. But let’s admit there’s no perfect time you could work less, there’s always something that needs you to look at, but only you can be responsible for yourself, in professional and personal. So this time I was bold enough to take the chance.

Strategy 2: Set the Environment Right

How many notifications do you get every single day? It’s so easy to “connect” to something that doesn’t really matter at that time but “disconnect” to something you really want to focus. So strategy No.2 is to turn off your phone. It’s easy to turn on the “Do Not Disturb” mode in iPhone.

Then go to somewhere you’re familiar with, where you won’t be disturbed by new “discoveries”, like the big SALE label in the store, or completely lost that you have to look up your phone to locate yourself. Maybe one of your favorite cafe would be the best at first. I found it’s easy for me to concerntrate and get serious work(thinking) done when I’m in the place where I’m really familiar with. It helps me to build up the routine and get into the “zone” so be conscious about the place would be helpful next time.

Strategy 3: Be a Journalist

The key point is to become a journalist, to ask good questions to yourself that drive you to focus on the essential area of your life, and don’t rush to answer them first.

Often times as an engineer when I hear a concern, issue or trouble I tend to quickly response with a possible solution. But this time I need to shut down that if-then thinking, to allow myself to dig deeper, pause and think more. I think you’ll be surprised too how much you could get just by pausing for a while.

Here are the questions I asked to myself:

I had some blur images but I definitely didn’t prepare all questions, most of them were improvised at the time, or should I say I plant the idea 1 week ago and had exactly what I expected.

Strategy 4: Set A Timer

I set a timer for 2 hours before I started writing the first question. When I finished I was right on time and I felt that’s the right amount of time needed.

It’s not a competition, it’s not more you write/ask/answer the more you gain. The process and experience is sharable but the end result is not, it’s for yourself, so don’t try to get more done during the process. Remember the “Less But Better” principle.

Strategy 5 Digital-less

I did this with a real pen and notebook. Even though I turned on “Do Not Disturb” on my phone, and I did bring an iPad with me, I still like the feeling of writing on physical paper.

It’s easy to get distracted on digital devices. For me I always care about the styling, spelling and using the right tool, which really doesn’t matter that much.

Plus the physical note has a limitation, you can’t write endlessly on one page, which conversely set a boundary to keep you on the right course. I brought a B5 size kinda small notebook in which I tend to answer each question within 1 page, that limitation forces me to describe more precisely and not to bring up everything. Compare to that digital note is border-less and “cheap”, even though it shows Page 1 and Page 2, navigation is so “effortless” that it won’t occur to you that you have written “too much”.

Strategy 6: Reschedule It for the next time

After I finished it I felt much better, I’ve dumped lots of concerns and worries, set only few goals for the next 90 days, moved some of the actionable items to OmniFocus(my GTD/TODO app). The next thing I did was to schedule the next Personal Quarterly Off-site on my calendar, to reinforce the benefits of Strategy 1 and be more aware the importance of having such kind of self retrospective day.

Final Thoughts

Although whole thinking and writing process only took 2 hours to finish, I still think utilizing that whole day to build up the mindset, to allow yourself to pause, to wander is critical for creativity. If you feel like you’ve got lots of tasks done but not moving towards your goal, maybe it’s time to do something good for yourself.

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Qihuan Piao

Qihuan Piao

(aka kinopyo) is Chinese based in Tokyo. Software writer. He shares stories inspired him in this blog. His infamous line - "I feel calm when I kill those monsters, or people (in game)" shocks his friends deeply.

He also writes in Japanese and Chinese.