“A red-dot on the wall”


So, this happened …

I wasn’t being lazy, I was being efficient.

My challenge was that, as a university student doing a very tough actuarial degree, I was overwhelmed by the volume of study required. There just wasn’t enough time to attend lectures, do assignments, study for exams, and still squeeze in social and family time. And so I got rather philosophical about “What’s the least amount of (A) that I need to do, in order to get (B)”.

My thinking was very practical. For example: What is the least I could still sleep and still function OK? How little could I spent on a project and still get a decent mark? Was it more time-efficient to attend lectures, or to self-study the relevant chapters?

Over time, that practical thinking sometimes became philosophical. For example, I recall one particular evening while playing darts over a few beers with friends.  (Remember, I didn’t say I had no social life, but rather I was trying to find a balance between still having some time with friends, but not overdoing it to the point it impacted badly on my studies.)

I was awaiting my turn to throw my three darts in a game of 501, but my performance that evening hadn’t been particularly good. I was trying to hit a double-seven to win, but kept hitting bust.

My brain went into philosophical mode, and I started wondering what was the ‘minimum’ dartboard I would need to practice on in order to get much better.

Yes that’s an odd thought, I know. Of course I could use a full dartboard, which would have made most sense, but in my beer-plus-philosophical mood, I considered what would happen if I only practiced with a single ‘segment’ of the dartboard. Could I still get good?

Of course, even just a single ‘segment’ would be enough to practice on. If I was good at aiming at a single segment, then I’d be good at aiming anywhere on an entire dartboard. I considered more extreme possibilities: would it be possible to still get good at darts even if the dartboard were reduced to just a bulls-eye? Heck, why not skip the entire dartboard and just practice with a small red dot on the wall? Yes that would work too!

But as my mind wandered, I took it to the limit: could I get good by just throwing darts at a blank wall, without even a dot? It dawned on me at that point that I had indeed reached the limit. There would be a big difference in results between practicing on a blank wall, or practicing on a blank wall on which was drawn a single red-dot.

If there were no red-dot, you wouldn’t know if you were consistently shooting too high or too low. You wouldn’t be able to tell if your throws were all over the place. No, that just wouldn’t work, you really do need something to aim at.

You’d definitely need at least a single point (and at most a single point) to improve your dart throwing.

You would always need at least a red-dot on the wall.

Simple Definition

The red-dot on the wall: This #hashtag-story addresses the fundamental point that whenever you’re doing something, make sure you have a (figurative) target that you’re aiming at. (When you’re practicing a skill, make sure it’s deliberate practice. When you’re doing a task, make sure you have an expectation of what the result will be. And when delegating work, ensure you’ve created an expectation for them as to what you intend to get.)

Discussing what it means

Practicing skills

In his lecture to Google entitled How to become a Magnetic Human Being, Andrew Sykes talks about the concept of “deliberate practice”, which – in slightly different words – explains how important it is to always put that red-dot on the wall. He uses the great example of a taxi cab driver who drives many hours a day, and a race car driver who also drives many hours a day. And yet one of them keeps getting better at driving, and the other (if anything) is probably becoming a worse driver over time. Why? Because of ”deliberate practice”, since driving without a specific objective for what in particular about your driving you’re trying to improve, simply doesn’t produce the results.

I found this was true with my own practicing to play the electric bass guitar. Of course I could practice without a metronome, but then I was playing to the pace of my own (untrained) internal clock, which may or may not have been close to the actual 120 bpm that Muse’s “Time is running out” required. That’s fine if I’m always going to play alone, but if I’m going to play in a band, and since the bass player drives the pace of the song, I absolutely needed to practice with a metronome.

The pace of a metronome was my red-dot on the wall.

Doing work

But try not to limit your thinking here by considering only skills that you’re learning, like languages or musical instruments or ping pong. It’s important to widen the scope of having a red-dot on the wall even for stuff that we simply … do. Like our work.

In London I had a boss who was “old skool” – he became very good at his mathematical & financial job long before people had personal computers on their desks, so he was very good at simplifying complex problems in his mind, enough to be able to ‘guess’ at the likely answer. So when he sent me to go do some calculations, he’d scribble some quick calculations on a piece of paper, and tell me “Go create a spreadsheet for this, you should be getting an answer of just over 50.” Sure enough, when my spreadsheet produced 50.7 per mille, I knew I hadn’t screwed up.

Even though I always had a computer on my desk at work, and even though I could always unthinkingly throw together a spreadsheet to get the answer in a messy way, what I learned from him stuck, and so I got into the habit of always taking guesses before doing my calculations – I was putting “a red-dot on the wall”. And when I grew into the boss role, I recall one particular occasion where I had asked one of my team members to do some work for me, telling him I expected the answer to be around 18-20. A day later he came back with a massive spreadsheet – where the answer was about 21. “Nope,” I said to him, having a quick re-think to make sure I hadn’t screwed up. “No, I’m sure it should be 18-20, but certainly not more than 20.” He argued with me, in the same way I probably did with my own boss once, and he insisted that 21 was close enough, so he must be right. I sent him away to check his spreadsheet. He begrudgingly did, and another day later came back again. He had found a mistake in his calculations, and once he’d corrected it, the answer had changed to 19.3. I gave him a smug look, and we moved on to the next project. (And while 21 does seem acceptably close to 19.3, in the actuarial world that can be a huge gap, the difference between a highly profitable or a highly loss-making product. Thank goodness for my “red-dot on the wall”.

Doing tasks

Whenever you do something, do you just begin and keep going until it’s finished? Or do you make your red-dot by first estimating that it might take you, say 2.5 hours to complete? And if it is very different to your 2.5 hour estimate, do you know why? If you get better at estimating how long tasks and projects take, then it will help you know when things are going well or badly, and it will help you plan and prioritize your days better. This will obviously allow you to get more things done, better things, in future.

But don’t just take my word for it. You may know Peter Drucker through his books and teachings, since he’s known as the “the founder of modern management”. In his book “Managing Oneself”, he says, “Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the actual results with your expectations. I have been practicing this method for 15 to 20 years now, and every time I do it, I am surprised.” Drucker is clearly making a strong case for a red-dot on the wall even in the area of business decisions.


Since ‘communication’ is one of the core pillars of #HashtagYourLife (do you remember what the others are?) it would make sense that in addition to regularly making a red-dot on your wall with your work, you could also be doing this for others, whether you’re CEO, a manager, a project leader, a teacher, or a colleague.

Whenever you give work to someone, you should always create an expectation for their deliverables. You get to make a red-dot on their wall! Tell them what you want, tell them how you want it, tell them by when you want it. This way they are clear on what you need, and you’re more sure that you will get what you want. And if you really can’t express these expectations, perhaps you should consider cancelling this task until such time as you’ve worked that out yourself.

I can’t tell you how many times in my career (hundreds? thousands?) someone has emailed me with work to be done, and I had to reply “By when do you want this?” It’s such a basic piece of information, and without this, what’s the point in even beginning?

Bringing it together

  • Put a “red-dot on the wall” when you’re practicing – be deliberate about what you want to improve, and how
  • Put a “red-dot on the wall” when you’re making decisions or calculations – in the beginning it may be just a guess, but you will get surprisingly good at it
  • And put a ”red-X on the wall” when you’re asking someone to do something – what, how, when?

Otherwise, what’s the point? Literally.

Making it personal

Take some time to consider the following:

  • What have you most recently practiced? An instrument, a language, a sport, a skill? What exactly did you want to improve during that session? How can you measure that, and test if it’s improving?
  • Think of something that’s on your to-do list, then guess how long it will take, now do the task and compare. From now on, do this with everything you have to do, and your ability to plan and prioritize will massively improve.
  • When was the last time you delegated something to someone at work, on a school project, or as a family chore? Be honest, could you have been more specific, to the benefit of both you and your delegatee?

Putting a ”red-dot on the wall” is such an important skill, an essential habit, that if you’re not already doing it multiple times every single day, then the good news is your life is about to get much better.

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