Making time work FOR us not AGAINST us

Making time work FOR us not AGAINST us

Do you always have too much to do?

It's not entirely surprising since our only finite resource, time, is at the heart of the challenge.

Unsurprisingly, this is a pretty constant topic when coaching people on their communication.

How do we find enough time to think through our communication? How do we know when to prioritise thinking through a particular piece … or when ‘smashing it out' is the right strategy?

It's also top of mind for me as I head off for a month away on Tuesday. Yes, a month.

So, today I wanted to focus on ‘time' and share some ways to help us all take advantage of it rather than be held hostage to it.

I'd like to suggest we can ‘hack' time to enhance our work and our life by harnessing two thinking modes.  This might be an odd idea, but let me give you the high-level first and then work through it in three parts.

  1. Two familiar thinking modes that we already use to allow time to do our work for us.
  2. Several modern writers offer ways for us to capitalise on the under-utilised ‘diffuse thinking' mode to enrich our work and life.
  3. So, with that background I'd like to share some of my own thinking on taking advantage of these two thinking modes in work and life

I'll now expand on each of these further.

Two familiar thinking modes that we already use to allow time to do our work for us. Let me introduce them both:

  1. Focused thinking, which is what we commonly imagine as ‘working'. This involves diving deeply into a task and as the name suggests, focusing on it. This is when we are actively reading, thinking, solving something specific. It can play out as time alone or time collaborating with others to complete a task.
  2. Diffused thinking, which I suggest most of us don't make nearly enough use of. This is the thinking that happens while we sleep, are out walking the dog, cooking dinner or perhaps in the shower. It's those non-focused times when our brain is processing in the background. It's also the times when breakthrough ideas often emerge. How often have you had the ‘aha' moment at a seemingly random point?

I first learned about these from Barbara Oakley in her Coursera course, Learning How to Learn. You may also find this free course enjoyable.

Several modern writers offer ways for us to capitalise on the under-utilised ‘diffuse thinking' mode to enrich our work and life.

Without necessarily using this language, they all seem to me to be taking advantage of diffuse thinking mode.  

Greg McKeown has written two excellent books on this subject. The subtitles for each sum up the key ideas:

  1. Effortless: Make it easier to do what matters most 
  2. Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less 

Cal Newport of Deep Work fame offers ideas to avoid distractions so we can focus properly when at work and switch off when not. There is overlap between his work and Greg McKeown's, but I have found both to be great reads.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang takes the ideas further and discusses the increasingly popular shorter work week. Again, his title and subtitle are instructive: Shorter: how working less will revolutionise the way you get things done. 

His thesis is that if we focus harder during a shorter time period we are forced to change the way we work which he says is a good thing.  This will force us to become both more efficient and more effective. We will change the systems we use, the way we use our time and help us deliver more over all.

He reinforces the idea that the extra time off helps us be happier and healthier. The beauty is that our time away from the office allows our ideas to ‘marinate' while we aren't ‘working'.   

These are not the only people talking about these issues, but ones that I have read and enjoyed. All offer ways to rebalance their use of focused and diffused thinking in their lives.

So, with that background I'd like to share some of my own thinking on taking advantage of these two thinking modes in work and life.

Firstly, in work, particularly where problem solving and communication are involved.

Many of my clients leave thinking about their communication to the last minute. They want to finish their analysis first and then are understandably squeezed as the deadline looms. Or they don't have enough information about the communication context to start and so leave it until they have no choice but to begin.

As an alternative, I suggest this five step strategy to help us start thinking early so we can take advantage of these two thinking modes.

  1. Start very early with a roadmapping session. This is where you think through the purpose and audience at some depth and possibly also start mapping out the high level story structure. You may do this alone or preferably with leaders who have greater visibility over the strategic context around your work than you do.
  2. Follow with short bursts of focused activity to draft the one-page storyline. One Clarity First member sets 30 minutes at the start of the day to get as much as he can done for major papers. Then he leaves it until the next appointment he has made with himself. This way he makes progress, isn't stressed by the deadline and can allow the ideas to marinate in the background.
  3. Iterate around the one-pager until the messaging lands. This can not only take some time but be counterintuitive. Our natural inclination is to dive into the details and start writing words on a page or preparing charts and diagrams. This, however, is time consuming and leads to redundant work.
  4. Finally, prepare your doc or deck. Once the messaging lands this is very easy to do quickly. It does, however, require some confidence in your ability to land the messaging earlier!

Secondly, in life. Now, this one is going to be different for everyone as demands on us and our life stages vary. I could be general here, but the authors I mentioned have offered good quality advice on the subject so I'll avoid that.

Instead, I'll explain why you won't be hearing from me for the coming few weeks. I'm taking July as a mix of holiday and sabbatical.

My husband and I are heading away for a month to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary and to catch up with our 22 year old who has recently moved to New York.

We'll be taking the first couple of weeks away as a ‘proper vacation' and then using the second half of the break as a sabbatical. This will give us time and space to reimagine our life and work.

On my side, I'll be thinking about two things in particular:

  1. Progressing a project around ‘big picture thinking' and ‘synthesis'. A group of advanced Clarity First members and I have been working on practical tools to help people make the leap between summary and synthesis. Taking this to the next stage will require both focus and ‘marination'!
  2. Optimising the Clarity First strategy. The intensity of my workload during the covid period has not allowed for much of this kind of thinking and planning. I am very much looking forward to thinking more deeply about the way forward for the business. It has been an exciting couple of years as my online programs have become more interesting to clients. I want to capture the learnings and optimise the program further.

So, during July I will send you weekly emails as always, however they will be scheduled before I go.

Have a great few weeks and I look forward to seeing you on the other side.

Kind regards,

Diving Deeply into Big Picture Thinking and Synthesis

Diving Deeply into Big Picture Thinking and Synthesis

Over the first half of 2022 a small group of us have been working on a conundrum: what process can we use to synthesise ideas?

We observe that this is a huge challenge for people when communicating and solving problems that storylines and issue trees help solve.

 However, in making full use of them we need more.

 So, we resolved to meet monthly, use the problem-solving tools discussed in the Clarity in Problem Solving course as a process map and work on it.

 This is the third discussion in that series which might start to be useful for those outside the sessions themselves. Do let us know if you would like to join the working group.

Why thinking into a doc is dangerous

Why thinking into a doc is dangerous

I was reminded this week how we must get our thinking straight in a one-pager before we prepare a document.

In using client material to prepare some exercises I had to work backwards from a document into a storyline.


It is so incredibly easy to miss the thinking errors in a document, especially in a PowerPoint deck.

I have pulled out the main problems I gleaned from this example which would have been more easily avoided if the author had prepared a one-pager first.

I have described the top-line first and followed with three prominent errors I saw throughout the deck.

Spotting the top-line problems was easy as it was neatly laid out on an executive summary page. Take a look below to see what I mean. How many problems do you see?

The confluence of factors affecting the market have created significant uncertainty

0. Spot and futures prices are high relative to historical benchmarks and have increased significantly from uneconomic lows only 18 months ago

1. The are many internal and external factors influencing current market outcomes

2. The impact for energy companies has varied and one of the key differentiators has been plant performance

Finding and fixing errors in the supporting pages was difficult as the language and links between ideas were at best muffled. Here are three traps that I drew from the top and supporting areas of this story for your inspiration.

Ban meaningless words … say what you mean! Look at how general the language is and how lacking in specifics. There are very few descriptive words and even fewer numbers.

Follow through when you set up with a frame … Point 2 above references internal and external factors influencing (how???) market outcomes (meaning???). If you are going to introduce concepts like that, use them to group the ideas below.

Avoid repeating higher level ideas within sections … I commonly see people repeat the idea above in the same or similar words. Most often this will be the last point in a list. Be careful to avoid that sort of repetition within your storyline. These sorts of ‘tell them what you told them' tactics can be useful in a document, but muddy the thinking within the storyline itself.

I hope that helps and look forward to bringing more to you next week.


PS – A warm welcome to our new members.

I have opened the doors to Early Birds and at the time of writing we have half a dozen who have joined today alone. We look forward to working with you!

If you are enjoying the program, please do tell your friends and colleagues about it so they can join. Download the brochure here to share with them.

Thinking Tools #3 – An upside down way to find gaps in our thinking

Thinking Tools #3 – An upside down way to find gaps in our thinking

The first time I recall using the inversion strategy was during my interview with McKinsey.

I remember a Senior Engagement Manager called Saimond putting me through my paces around a case and then posing a leading observation.

“So, you have given me some great demand side ideas there …”

As someone with a kindergarten teaching and then communication background I had not used economic concepts much. But thankfully I had helped review my university boyfriend's economics essays and twigged that he wanted more and different ideas from me.

So, I responded that he was right, and that perhaps he would like some supply side ideas too?

I then invented some on the spot. Using opposites has turned out to be a useful thinking strategy in many situations since.

It is also another model discussed in Shane Parrish's new book The Great Mental Models which I posted about last week.

Given some of you have asked me to pick my way through Shane's models in bite-sized stages, I am extending my series of posts on this book. Today's focus is on opposites, or as Shane Parrish calls them ‘inversions'.

There are a number of natural places to use this strategy.

Firstly, when choosing a set of options to evaluate. He offers two strategies to help you use inversions:

  1. Start by assuming that what you are trying to prove is either true or false, then show what else would have to be true
  2. Instead of aiming directly for your goal, think deeply about what you want to avoid and then see what options are left over

Secondly, when ensuring our ideas are MECE. This works both when we are communicating and also when solving problems (which I will talk more about during the Hypothesis-driven Problem Solving series I am planning for March).

I thought you may find it useful to have a list of examples of where I have used inversions recently that you could also apply in your own communication. 

I have ordered them according to the three lenses we use for checking whether our ideas are ordered well:


  • Internal versus external (eg as in forces acting on something)
  • Supply versus demand (eg economics)
  • Hard versus soft perspectives (eg McKinsey 7S framework)


  • Current versus past or future (eg activities, plans)
  • Experienced versus inexperienced (eg team members)
  • Old versus young / new (eg equipment, technology)


  • Hot versus cold (eg could be literal or metaphorical)
  • Increasing versus decreasing (eg prices)
  • Large versus small (eg anything measurable!)

Remember: step one when organising your ideas from the bottom up is to work out the categories. Step two is to work out what you are saying about those categories.

I hope that helps.

Talk soon,


PS – Related posts include:

From this series …
  1. 5 Ways to be MECE in your communication
  2. Further thinking tools

Past posts on thinking skills …
  1. How to use your critical thinking abilities to turbo charge your communication
  2. Strengthen your critical thinking abilities
  3. 4 Ideas to make structured thinking stick
  4. Awesome problem solving strategies
  5. The value of thinking-top down versus bottom-up (for Sprint and Momentum Members)

PPS – I receive a small commission if you click the link and decide to purchase a copy of Shane's book from Amazon.


Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong where she helped others use the Minto Pyramid Principle. She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia.

Her clients include mid to upper level experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US.