How to find your zone of genius

A lot of people find themselves spending time on tasks that drain their energy. But there's another way: to find your zone of genius, and to progressively move to a job where you spend 80% of your time in it.

Mathilde Collin, CEO and Co-founder at Front
2 August 20217 Min Read

A lot of people find themselves spending time on tasks that drain their energy. But there's another way: to find your zone of genius, and to progressively move to a job where you spend 80% of your time in it.

The saying goes: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” I don’t think it’s accurate: if you want to do your best work, it’s going to take a lot of effort. The opposite, however, is absolutely true: if you do what you hate, you’ll be miserable every single day. Yet a lot of people find themselves in that very situation, spending their time on tasks that drain their energy, fully convinced that there’s no other way. There is another way: to find your zone of genius, and to progressively move to a job where you spend 80% of your time in it. Hat tip to Matt Mochary who shared this method with me years ago.

The zone of what?

If you don’t know about the concept of “zone of genius”, here is a 1-minute summary. Every single activity you perform during the day falls within one of four zones:

  1. Zone of Incompetence: Activities that other people probably do better than you (e.g. fixing your car).

  2. Zone of Competence: Activities that you do just fine, but others are as good as you at them (e.g. cleaning your bathroom).

  3. Zone of Excellence: Activities that you are excellent at—better than most, in fact—but don’t love doing.

  4. Zone of Genius: Activities that you are uniquely good at in the world, and that you love to do, so much so, that time and space likely disappear to you when you do them. 

Unless the activities in the first 3 zones bring you joy, you should try to outsource them. Find someone that will get energy from doing them, so you can spend most of your time in your zone of genius. It won’t be easy, especially for activities in the zone of excellence, because a lot of people benefit from you doing them, and will try to keep them assigned to you. This is why so many people keep on doing what they hate!

It’s important to note: you shouldn’t worry that no one would want to do the tasks you hate doing. There is enough diversity in the world that for any task you find draining, there is someone out there who’s both great at it and happy to do it. The key is for everyone in your company to be transparent about their zone of genius, so that all activities can be mapped to the right people.

Finding your zone

There’s a very practical exercise you can do to figure out what activities fall within your zone of genius: the Energy Audit. You can do it on your own, but it’s best to have someone to hold you accountable—preferably your manager since they’re most likely to help you “outsource” the tasks you don’t want to be doing. If you found someone to help you with this exercise, schedule a dedicated meeting with them in the near future; if you’re doing it alone, schedule that meeting with yourself. Prior to the meeting, make sure you’ve done the following: 

1. Track on your calendar everything you’re doing that is work-related, for 2 weeks in a row. I mean everything: meetings, working on 1:1s, responding to emails, etc. Make sure to have 2 weeks representative of what you normally experience, so if you were on an unusual 3-day business trip last week, pick 2 other weeks.

2. Get two highlighters, pens, or pencils of different colors (red and green are ideal, but any will do), and go through each workday hour-by-hour and ask yourself “Did that activity give me energy or drain my energy?” Highlight in green those that gave you energy, and in red those that did not give you energy. There are no neutrals: every hour must be marked one color or the other. If an hour did not give you energy, it is red.

3. When you’re done with the 2 weeks, write out a list of each of the reds, and group those activities into similar buckets, like 1:1 meetings, hiring meetings, travel, planning, etc.

4. For each type of activity that does not raise your energy, write down ways to:

  • Eliminate it,

  • Outsource it, or

  • Make it awesome.

I know what you’re wondering. How can I outsource or eliminate activities that currently fall under my responsibility? Let me give you a couple of examples.

Eliminate: I used to have 45-minute first meetings with candidates for one of the hiring searches I was doing, which allowed ample time for the candidate to ask their questions about the job and the company. I found these extremely repetitive and draining. I turned them into 15-minute meetings, which is probably too short, but at least ensures that there’s enough intensity that they can’t be boring. 

Outsource: One of our managers at Front realized that he didn’t get energy from doing phone screens with prospective candidates. He removed himself from this stage of the hiring process and asked members of his team who were happy to get involved to take care of it. Simple, right? But outsourcing doesn’t have to be from a manager towards direct reports. You can outsource work to your manager, too! One of my VPs was tasked with picking the best wiki software for company-wide knowledge sharing. She told me she found the whole project draining, so I offered to do it instead. I’m sincerely excited about it, so much so that I’m convinced it’ll take me half the time it would have taken her! I get to do something (I find) fun, and precious resources at Front are better allocated.

Make it awesome: For the remaining activities that you can’t really eliminate or outsource, like meetings where you’re expected to give your opinion, the next best thing you can do is to re-design them to make them less draining. For instance, I used to do an intro presentation called “All about Front” during new hire onboarding. It was very factual and full of anecdotes about Front’s history, but the content (logically) was always the same, and after doing it every month for 2 years, I found it so unfulfilling that I was literally dreading the next one. That’s when I put it through the Energy Audit, decided it was too valuable to eliminate, and opted to make it awesome instead. For the next iterations, I decided to go off-script, be more vulnerable, and really connect with the people attending, in a way that was actually energizing!

This has been a pattern for me: there is a section called “Mathilde’s Musings” during our weekly all-hands meeting, where I talk about a variety of topics of interest for the company. I used to learn pretty much by heart the contents of it, which gave me a lot of control over what I was going to say, but was also taking me hours of preparation that would completely drain my batteries. Now, I only talk about topics that I’m so familiar with that I don’t need to prep as much, and it’s been so much better! For me of course, but I suspect it’s better for my audience too.

5. Once every activity has the corresponding remedy, turn each of these into actions with due dates and put them in your task management tool. A good way to be accountable for this is to go through this audit with your manager.

6. Keep doing this Energy Audit each month, until 75% or more of your time is spent doing things that give you energy. If you do, you will be able to achieve far more in less time, because you will perform far better. You will be in your Zone of Genius.

That’s it! It takes a bit of time, but if you power through, I guarantee you won’t regret it. Your time is precious, so the best thing you can do is to make the most of it!

In the past I discussed this very topic with Justin Kan, who is a big proponent of the zone of genius exercise and used it for himself and his team. You can hear our full conversation if you’d like.

Watch Finding your Zone of Genius with Justin Kan

Written by Mathilde Collin
Originally Published: 22 March 2017
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