Maybe I read too many business books, but I think about strategy versus execution a whole lot as it applies to me, a person in the world. We all make dozens of choices every day about how we spend our time and effort, and I want to make the best choices I can. Splitting strategic thinking and planning from actually doing stuff helps.
When I’m feeling the pressure of competing obligations, or not sure if I should work on something, or if something I am working on feels like it’s just not right, I turn to Think, Organize, Do. These are the three modes of work that everyone needs in order to function with purpose. These modes inform and feed each other, and when I’m in a rut, burned out, or overwhelmed, it’s usually because I haven’t spent enough time in one or more of these modes.
Thinking is stepping back from the daily grind of cranking out product, and taking a big-picture look at things. This is the CEO of your brain going to an off-site and drawing circles on a whiteboard. This is your aspirational self cutting out pages of a magazine and pasting them to your vision board. This is your teenage self writing in her diary about what she wants to be when she grows up.
Thinking can be self-reflection, creative brainstorming, an inner check-in, or a storytelling exercise. It can happen at the scale of your entire life (look out, these are deep), or more commonly, in the context of a current role or circumstances. The basic questions to ponder are: What are the things that make me proud and happy? And what are the things that don’t? Does the way I’m spending my days and time right now align with my goals? How should I adjust my goals or my work?
In too-busy, always-on culture, Think is the most-neglected mode there is. When I don’t make time for it, it happens involuntarily in the margins of my time, like in a waiting room, during my commute, or when I can’t fall asleep. Your brain wants time to zoom out and reflect and tell itself the story of your life and your career. I have to remind myself to give it the time to do so.
A lot of “I should”‘s and “I’d like to”‘s happen during Think mode. As a to-do list person, I frame aspirations as mandates, so I emerge from Think mode with a long list of big things I’d like to do. Now it’s time to decide how to prioritize those things, break them down, and give yourself the instructions to execute. This is classic project management work. This is your middle manager, having digested the strategy, getting her head around the mandates, setting up marching orders for the team.
I find it useful to scope Organize mode to a length of time: A day, week, month, or year. My daily practice is a 20-minute Organize session when I get to my desk in the morning. That’s when I look at my calendar, write out my task list, and move the most important items to the top of the priority queue.
Friday, Sunday, or Monday morning is a good time to do a weekly look at what happened last week and what should happen next. And so on. The goal is to come out of Organize mode with very clear, discrete, executable tasks that are—and this is key—in the right order. The better instructions you can give your Do self, the easier it will be to go into cranking mode and just go.
Making decisions is a lot harder and more draining than just getting tasks done. It’s also way more difficult to measure success. So once you’ve made it to Do mode, it’s blue skies ahead. Checking items off a task list gives you the sense of productivity and satisfaction that everyone craves. Tractable, executable tasks—”send email,” “buy milk,” “copyedit document”—have clear success, failure, and completion states. Getting things done feels great. After all the hard work of thinking and organizing, you deserve it.
But watch out. It feels so good to get stuff done, it’s easy to ignore the other modes and just go on auto-pilot. Is the stuff you’re doing the right stuff? If you’re wondering, it’s time to Think and/or Organize.
Think / Organize / Do is an easy way to align goals and actions, strategy and execution, in your daily tasks. But it’s also something we should incorporate into the digital products, tools, and systems that we build. Too much software is purely about enabling Doing with maybe a thin layer of Organizing on top. I want to see more products that encourage and help people to Think as well.