By February 20, 2013 Read More →

SWAT Mode for Extreme Productivity

SWAT mode

“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.” – Voltaire

Are you able to outpace your problems and challenges or do they bog you down?  If you’ve had a recurring challenge, or a small problem that somehow got bigger over time, you need to know how to use SWAT mode to nail your challenges and move on.

SWAT Mode is the best way I know to turn things from never-ending or on-going projects into done deals.

SWAT Mode is a technique for using concentrated effort in batches to overwhelm your problem or challenge.  By “SWAT Mode” I mean a special application of concerted effort applied to a persistent problem, pulling out all the stops to power your way through when normal efforts just won’t work.

SWAT mode is one of the most important tools you need in your productivity bag of tricks.  It’s the only way that I’ve seen to consistently defeat problems that would otherwise overwhelm you.  It’s great for those problems that seem to get bigger over time, or that never seem to go away.   It’s especially important for problems or challenges that you need to nip in the bud before they grow out of control.  SWAT mode also a great way to cut free from the challenges that weight you down. You can use it for those chronic, important but not at all urgent problems, or maintenance rather than creative challenges that keep eating at you and draining your energy.

This technique is how I have finished challenging projects, where others have gotten stuck, let their worst challenges defeat them, and let molehills turn into mountains.  They never finished their projects and they failed to outpace their problems.

SWAT Mode Gets You Over the Humps

SWAT Mode is a crucial strategy for some tasks that cannot be spread out over time.   You would fail if you spread your effort over time because the small investments of effort end up mostly thrashing and rebuilding state without making serious headway.

I often use SWAT Modes to bootstrap projects, to clear hurdles during projects, and to bring projects to close.  I also use SWAT Mode to deal with a problem that keeps weighing me down, chipping away at my energy, time, or focus.

If I can’t let something slough off then I take the bull by the horns and I overwhelm the problem – I use SWAT Mode to tackle the problem with full force, in a short concentrated effort to deal with it decisively.  I’m not worried about sustainability, my driver is getting it off my plate, so I can sustain myself and don’t get worn down  Ironically, that’s exactly what helps me sustain my effort and energy in all other areas.

When to Use SWAT Mode

Here are some guidelines for when to use SWAT Mode:

  • You can’t outpace your problem: the energy you throw at it gets wasted … it’s like a dam where more leaks spring even as you are applying patches
  • A finite project becomes an endless project and weighs down other areas of your life
  • You become overloaded … too many things piling on and you can’t catch up
  • You become mentally defeated and your mental model switches to a death march or an unwinnable situation
  • Your mental pressure builds up … and it works against you not just on this problem but other areas of life
  • The cost of letting it go significantly outweighs the cost of doing something about it

How To Use SWAT Mode

Here are the tactics of how you can apply SWAT Mode to outpace and overwhelm your problems:

  • Everything else takes a back seat.  Everything.  That’s why it’s called SWAT Mode – it’s the immediate mission, all hands on deck, full focus, full force, fully engaged … until mission accomplished.
  • Immerse yourself in it.   Throw yourself into it as a short burst and nail it.   That’s what makes this work.  Go “all in.”  This isn’t about sticking your big toe in the water, or wading in the low end of the swimming pool.  This is diving in.  This is sink or swim.
  • Throw way more time, energy, and focus into it.   The piecemeal isn’t working. The little bitty timeboxes are just wasting your time.  This is a short-burst project where success is to make 80% progress on the solution to the problem, so the bulk of the problem is quickly off your plate.  Get it done, or “done enough for now”, where you feel a sense of significant accomplishment.
  • Change gears.  Get out of first gear.  You can’t keep doing the same pace, or you won’t outpace the problem.
  • Batch and focus.   it’s a batch and focus exercise where you apply a concentrated burst of time, energy, and focus.  Rather than a few minutes here and a few minutes there, put in enough consecutive time in a batch to put a serious and significant dent in the challenge before you.  Overwhelm your problem through sustained effort.
  • Set a date and drive to completion.   This is not a sustainable pace that you’re going to do … this is an exception … for this exercise you will throw all your effort into it and drive it closed.  So your date when it’s done will be determined by when you just say, it’s done this month, or it’s done today, or it’s done by Friday.
  • Decide to be done.  Decide and execute.  You have to decide when it will be done, or it will never be done.  Don’t try to analyze the work and estimate and make some date out in the future.  It’s not working.  This is a problem that’s causing you pain that you have to get off your plate and time is of the essence.  You have to literally flip your mind from trying to create a good time estimate at your normal pace, and instead, decide that it you will be done with this, and here is the deadline.
  • Move the big rocks first.  Don’t start with weed whacking.  Do your heavy lifting and move your big rocks first.  You want to avoid getting bogged down with micro-movements and death by a 1,000 paper cuts, unless of course, that’s exactly what this situation calls for.  In which case, you blast through with sustained time, energy, and focus in a concentrated effort for a short-period of time in high-gear.
  • Divide and conquer your problem.  Divide and conquer.  Slash away.   Hack away at the unessential.  Break it down.  Make mince-meat out of it.
  • Clear obstacles and create glide paths.  Your clear major obstacles and create friction-free glide paths where you can.  Set the stage and tee up your results.  Build momentum by moving your humps and hurdles and the things that block you.
  • Scrimmage against your results.  Test the path quickly before you speed up and repeat it.  Do quick tests and trial runs in your high risk areas.  Make sure that anything you plan to repeatedly do will be worth it.  Open up any big risks so you can avoid potential do-overs where possible.
  • Focus on effectiveness.   Don’t ask is this the best way to do this, ask is it effective?  If it’s not working, change your approach.  The emphasis isn’t on being smart — it’s on being successful.  Being “smart” is very likely what got you into this situation in the first place.  Now it’s time to use a brute force attack to bail yourself out.

Cleaning Out the Garage Example

Here is an example I gave to a friend of mine that was struggling with tackling his garage.

  • Pick a date when you want to be done.  Decide that one of these weekends this month, that it will be done.  It won’t stretch past that.  It will be off your plate, the ongoing pain or overhead is worth resolving and getting some order and space back… some peace of mind.
  • Get psyched.   Circle it on your calendar.  Tell yourself that is the weekend the problem is going away. Tell others to really commit yourself to take action.
  • Do your pre-work.  Set the stage for success.  For a smooth glide path, get a bunch of boxes ahead of time so you have plenty on hand and can blast through your work pile.
  • Divide and conquer your work pile.  For example, first quickly group everything into simple groups:  (1) things I need often, (2) things that are garbage, (3) things I need to store.  In the first pass just push everything into these three piles.  Put things in boxes to move around easier, but don’t over-engineer the process.  Do more, analyze less.
  • Act on it.  Once everything is in boxes, really dig in.  What’s important is that you literally boxed the problem.  Now moving boxes around is fast.  You’ve made simple groups of stuff you use, stuff you store, and stuff you need to get rid off.
  • Walk your main scenarios.  Focus on the things you use.  Focus on the things you often use, and efficiently store the rest you need to keep.   Make it easy and friction-free to get to the things you use most often.  It sounds simple, but it’s a helpful way to prioritize.  You can find the key things to prioritize by walking your main usage scenarios.   Just walk through the top 3-5 scenarios where you want to get something from the garage and use that go guide you.  Walking through your main scenarios keeps it relevant and makes it real.  You will also get instant value by focusing on what you actually use and by creating better experiences.
  • Get rid of the stuff that gets in the way.   Get rid of the garbage, give away or sell or recycle what you can that you are jettisoning. If you can’t dispose of it now, put it in a place where you will be sure to deal with it soon.  It’s stuff that you’re getting out of your life to make space to focus on better things.   Remind yourself that your “stuff” no longer will get in the way of maintaining or enjoying what you’ve got.

Failure Patterns

I’ve seen enough folks fail at getting past recurring challenges in their life, that I can describe the warning signs:

  • They don’t change gears.   They don’t use a sense of urgency to drive through the challenge.  They take the same pace as everything else, and it isn’t enough.  As a result, they can’t outpace their problem.
  • They intersperse effort among everything else.   Instead of a batch and focus effort, to bring it to a close, they water down their effort by spreading themselves among other things.
  • They don’t decide when it will be done.   This could be a simple as deciding, “This WILL be done today!.”  Without this decision, they won’t commit full force, mostly to “pace” themselves for a never-ending saga. As a result, the pace means once more, a finite project turns into a never-ending, never done, ongoing effort, instead of something they could bring to a close .
  • They don’t move the big rocks first.  They start with the little details, like, “What should go in this box?” and, “Oh look at this old thing”, “Isn’t this interesting, gosh, I haven’t seen this in years”, etc.  Instead, it has to be a brute force attack against the big rocks:  divide up the piles, get the big things in place, etc.  Details come later, if at all.  It’s more important to have the stuff in the ballpark than focus on each detail along the way until once more you run out of time, run out of energy, and have nothing useful to show
  • They lack brutal focus on the priorities.  It’s about relentless focus and ruthless prioritization.  No distractions; it’s a SWAT mission.  Get in and get out.  Focus on the success of the mission; don’t get lost in the weeds.   It’s brutally important to be able to see the forest from the trees, and keep taking action that matters.

The success pattern is actually pretty repeatable, and you can apply it broadly.  By chunking up the mountain into molehills, getting some quick success, and moving the bulk of things into place, you set the stage for further success.  You make it way easier so that in the future, you can get even more benefit, or you can work through the problem or challenge in more detail as needed.  This is an incremental and iterative way to get great results in the sticky areas of your life, and to outpace or overwhelm the problems that could potentially wear you down.

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Image by Ha-Wee.

4 Comments on "SWAT Mode for Extreme Productivity"

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  1. Glenn says:

    I needed this today.

    There are a dozen unique projects staring at me. I feel guilty about the eleven I am neglecting at any given time. The SWAT approach describes a way to deploy my limited resources, i.e., me, in a way that allows me to shed that guilt. I’m off to put it into use right away.

  2. JD says:

    @ Glenn — SWAT mode can be our best friend when we need it most.

    While it’s great when we have a sustainable pace, there are plenty of times when we need to sprint or to hustle to get over the humps.

  3. Rich Fantozzi says:

    First off this is great our team used it last week on a development sprint that lets just say has been stuck at the starting line for way too long.

    I was wondering though in your experience what is the longest you have effectively used SWAT mode. We did it for 3 days in a row and while we burned through the user stories in the sprint by day 4 some on the team had to revert back to some lower octane tasks. We where 95% complete (on a two week sprint no less) and where able to finish it up by day 5, but do you think this is an individual call or a team call as to when to switch out of SWAT mode?

    Great post as always.
    -rich

  4. JD says:

    @ Rich — Great question.

    A week of high-intensity is about the max. If you need it longer, it’s usually a sign to look for another way to optimize.

    The week helps because there’s an end in sight. It’s not easy to push when it feels like a death march or there’s no end in sight.

    There is a trick through to make each day more sustainable. The key is to work in short-bursts throughout the day, and take small breaks. Otherwise, you burn out your pre-frontal cortext and it needs a break. When thinking starts to hurt your head or you feel like one more decision will push you over the edge, you need a brain break. It could be as simple as a quick walk, or going completely off topic.

    If you use that trick and break up the day as a series of intense bursts, it’s easy to go the distance in a more sustainable way.

    In general, now I like to really like to stick to single day SWATs. It’s much easier to get folks to focus and push for a day, than for a week. And, I like to look for creative ways to optimize the overall week.

    Three books that really help explain the science and proven practices behind this are:
    - Flow
    - The Power of Full Engagement
    - Flawless Execution