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Management Here’s a business technique for partners in life: the planning retreat

Five years ago, literary couple Merilyn Simonds and Wayne Grady found their life and relationships bogging down. Having each just finished strategic-planning efforts with organizations in which they’re involved, the Kingston, Ont., duo decided to apply the techniques to themselves.

They divided their life into six areas: work-for-hire, creative work, health and fitness, family and friends, finances, and living circumstances. Each could speak for 20 minutes uninterrupted on each topic while the other took notes. Then the listener had to reiterate what had been said to make sure they had understood.

“We took a day for each topic, learned a lot about each other, and ended up with a list of surprising and motivating goals,” Ms. Simonds writes on her blog. It was such a success, they recently repeated the effort. Now that both are novelists, Ms. Simonds makes a comparison: “The exercise is a bit like plotting a novel, one you have to live through to discover how it turns out.”

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Consultant Scott Eblin, who has been conducting an annual planning retreat with his wife Diane for 20 years, has some tips on how to plot a novel with your partner:

  • Don’t use your living room: Make a treat and a trip of it. Their first one was in a $25-a-night log cabin in West Virginia. They’ve used hotels and other getaway spots. “It should be close enough that it’s not a hassle to get to but far enough away that you can use the trip there as a time to transition from your everyday routines to the retreat itself. We’ve found 2.5 to 3 hours to be a nice amount of time for the trip there,” he writes on his blog.
  • Start with fun, not pen and paper: Again, this is part of the mindset transition. And intersperse your planning with other joyful activities.
  • Reflect and review: Moving on should flow from reviewing the past year.
  • Brainstorm: Take a few hours to sketch out a vision of what you need and want in the coming year. His wife likes to ask, “What if?” as a prelude to opening up possibilities for big goals and dreams. He writes headlines of the key categories – this year, it was friends, volunteering, continuing education and family – and then over the weekend writes thoughts that come to him for each.

Couples can spend much of the year rushing off in disparate directions. This is a way to plan together and understand each other better.

On stupidity

None of us wants to look stupid. But what is stupidity? Can we escape it?

Adam Robinson, an educator and chess life master, spent a month grappling with those ideas before a presentation to an investment conference and decided that, contrary to what we think, stupidity is not the opposite of intelligence. Instead, he explains on the Farnam Street Knowledge Project, stupidity is the cost of intelligence operating in a complex environment.

He defined stupidity as “overlooking or dismissing conspicuously crucial information” – important stuff, right in front of your nose, that you either overlook or dismiss. There are seven factors that make smart people act stupidly:

  • being outside of your circle of competence
  • stress and fatigue
  • rushing or urgency
  • fixation on an outcome
  • information overload
  • groupthink 
  • being in the presence of an “authority” (including yourself)

Mr. Robinson came across four instances where world-class musicians were in a new city, rushing, and forgot their instruments – one of which was a $3-million violin in an Amtrak train. In 1998, Yo-Yo Mah was in New York City – rather than his native Boston – late for an appointment, and left his cello in a taxi. “I just did something stupid. I was in a rush,” he said.

Quick hits

  • To gain a few hours every week and a better life-work approach, productivity specialist Elizabeth Grace Saunders says you must quit something, limit something, pause something, or delegate something. And, of course, add something to make good use of that new-found time.
  • Drawing something is far better for memory than writing the idea down, research led by the University of Waterloo’s Myra Fernandes suggests.  
  • If you want to get better at something, consultant Peter Bregman says you must answer yes to two questions: Do you want to do better and are you willing to feel the discomfort of putting in more effort and trying new things that will feel different and won’t work right away? 
  • The most common age for groundbreaking work by Nobel Prize winners, great inventors and scientists is in their late thirties, about 10 years into their career.
  • Quote to ponder from marketing consultant Mick Torbay: “The committee is not evil. The committee doesn’t want you to fail. The committee has nothing but good intentions. But the committee can’t innovate. More than anything, the committee wants to look good to the rest of the committee. The committee is afraid of looking stupid… So don’t be surprised that when you present a really, really great idea to a committee, the only thing you’re gonna get is a reason why that idea won’t work, one reason for every member of the committee.” 

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