Thursday 31 May 2012

What Encourages Us to Get Things Done?

If you’ve read the last couple of posts on What Stops Us Getting Things Done, you might be despairing that anything will ever get done again.  But for every reason we have to put something off, a stronger urge keeps us moving forward.  Here is a starter on what encourages us to get things done:

1.    Values.  Values are when we can’t imagine behaving any other way.  Some people can’t leave the house without making the bed, or relax in the evening unless they have done the washing up.  Values ensure we reply to email before close or play.  Values are our own in-built standards that get the things done even when we are in a hurry or disaster strikes elsewhere.

2.    Urgency.  When other people are waiting for some work, or something bad will happen if we don’t do it.  Think end of tax year, end of month reporting, delivering work to an important customer.

3.    Enjoyment.  Loving what we do. 

4.    Quick and easy work.  Stuff that doesn’t need much thought and can get done quickly.  This may be things you should rightly clear off your plate so they don’t become a problem later or “busy work” that could be done in off-peak time, or not done at all.

5.    Habits.  Those “eat and sleep routines” that you do without thinking.  Examine your work habits to see which are useful, and which less so.

6.    Discipline.  Not a massively popular word, but sometime knuckling down and getting difficult or unpleasant things done takes discipline and grit.  ‘Nuff said.

As with what stops us getting things done (parts 1 and 2) I’m sure this list could be added to.  As we identify what encourages us to be productive, we can make little modifications to our work so tasks become easier and more fun.  It's worth a thought.

Monday 28 May 2012

6 More Reasons for Not Getting Things Done

Friday’s post "6 Reasons We Don’t Get Things Done" provoked a bit of discussion.  Being specific about a problem can be a breakthrough in finding the solution, so it’s worth a bit of thought.  Here are six more reasons why things that should get done, don’t:

1.    Not understanding the problem.  Not defining it well enough.  Trying to solve a different problem.  Woolly thinking.  Complex problems frequently need to be defined, refined and revisited several times before the right problem gets worked on.   

2.    Interruptions/disturbances.  External and internal.   Whilst there is no shortage of external interruptions, and steps can be taken to minimise these, we are also quite capable of interrupting ourselves.  Checking email, making tea, stopping for a chat are all valid to some degree, but on occasions can be serious disturbances to our work.

3.    Perfectionism.  Believing you can’t do it well enough, which stops us even trying.

4.    Vicarious conduct.  Doing other things during work time.  You know what they are.

5.    Lack of energy.  Many people work better at one time of the day or another.  I’m definitely a morning person, but I know night owls who seem to work best in the wee small hours.  Knowing what works best for you can, and setting up your day to take advantage, can help.

6.    Taking on impossible jobs.  Tasks may be impossible for a number of reasons.  You may not have the ability to do them, other people may be determined to stop you, or you may not have planned the work carefully enough. 

I bet this list still isn’t exhaustive, but the longer it gets, the more useful it gets.  So a huge thank you to those who have contributed to the debate.  And just in case you are feeling that nothing will ever get done ever again, later in the week I’m writing about what encourages us to get things done.  If I get round to it, of course!

Friday 25 May 2012

6 Reasons for Not Getting Things Done

You probably procrastinate less than I do.  Not that I do it on purpose, far from it, I like to attack the day with vigour and get on with what needs doing.  It’s just that some things don’t get done.  Or they stay on my “guilt list” for too long.  And whilst there might be many reasons for why these things aren’t getting done, the bottom line is that either they should be on my “to do” list, or they shouldn’t.  If they should be there, but haven’t been done after a month or so, then I’m procrastinating. 

Identifying the problem often leads to a solution; or gets us some of the way.  So here’s my list of what stops us getting on with what needs doing:

1.     Fear.  We are complex creatures so fear includes fear of failure, fear of success, fear of trying but not succeeding, fear of doing it wrong, fear of making a mistake, fear or looking foolish, or fear of not doing it as well as someone else.  Plus lots more things we are frightened of, but hide away.    

2.     Too difficult.  We don’t have the knowledge, we haven’t thought about what needs doing, we haven’t broken the job into small enough tasks, or we haven’t consulted with people we need to consult with. 

3.     Conflicting priorities.  Real or imagined.  We have other more important, more interesting, or easier things to do.

4.     Need additional resources.  We may need advice, money, or something from someone to get the job done.

5.     Lack of urgency.  Important things are rarely urgent, and vice versa, which means the big, important things need extra attention to get done.

6.     Lack of perceived importance.  Tidiness, planning, communication, taking time off.  Many low-level activities don’t appear to be important and only show their value when something gets lost, or missed, or someone wasn’t consulted.
Of course this list isn’t exhaustive, nor is it necessarily real.  Or at least each and every item is real until you put it under the microscope and examine it for the paper dragon it is.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Caffeine – A Cornerstone Habit?

I’m two weeks in to my 100 day caffeine free trial. After getting horrible caffeine withdrawal headaches for the first week I’ve been fine, and haven’t had any caffeinated drinks. I’ve eaten some chocolate, perhaps a little more than normal, but not much more.

In terms, of how I’m feeling I have to report I feel better without the caffeine than with. I’m much less tempted to have a glass of wine in the evening, so my alcohol consumption has plummeted. This in itself is a significant benefit. Sadly, it hasn’t resulted in any weight loss, but you can’t have everything! I’ve also taken up yoga again. It’s hard to know whether this is connected with giving up caffeine, but during the first week I did a lot of tidying up, and generally “putting my house in order”. So I’m tempted to think it was connected, but who knows?

On balance, therefore, I’m think there is something in this idea of a cornerstone habit. Improve one part of your life and other bits start following on, almost without any effort. It’s a very interesting idea that has lots of potential. Of course, it doesn’t have to be caffeine, it could be giving up smoking, taking up exercise, or making your bed in the morning. It could be anything. 

Curiously for me, I’m also growing tired of the debate about whether caffeine is or isn’t good for you (me, one, anyone). For me, it’s becoming clear that I’m a bit better off without it. It’s not a die in the ditch thing, but my life runs a little bit more calmly when I abstain. So whilst I’m sure there are benefits to drinking green tea, such as the antioxidants, I’m going to give them a miss. It’s no big deal, just personal choice. I know from past experience that a lot of people are interested in the do or don’t drink debate surrounding caffeine, but I’m no medic so can’t really contribute. The internet is a great resource for getting information on this sort of thing. I think running a personal trial with and without is no bad thing. Then you can make your own mind up.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

How to Love Yourself

At the risk of sounding like a real tree-hugger, I was thinking about self-love and self-esteem at the weekend.  A friend has written a rather lovely novella on the subject and I read the first draft on Sunday.  Apart from being a gripping read, it reminded me of the importance of looking after oneself.  I suspect there are lots of people who don’t spend enough time thinking about their own needs, whilst spending lots of time thinking about other people’s. 

The novella reminded me that we have to love ourselves before we can care for anyone else.
By loving yourself I don’t mean conceit or selfishness, rather taking care of one’s physical, mental and spiritual needs in order to function properly.  Put like that it doesn’t sound selfish at all, it sounds plain sensible.  Like putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others on the flight we all hope we are never on. 

The odd thing is, once you start thinking about how to love yourself, it isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Thinking about what is best for you as an individual goes against the grain; we are too used to fitting in and not making a fuss. 
It’s hard to know whether my very unscientific experiment of giving up caffeine for a few months is encouraging these thoughts about what’s good for me, but the thoughts are there.  As caffeine is going out of my system, in comes thoughts about exercise and drinking more water.  Oh, and yoga classes.

I’ll be honest; this isn’t an area I’ve given much thought.  So you might say it’s an area I need to work on.  So I’ll give you a list I found, from someone who has come up with sensible non-tree-hugging conclusions.  This is the link if you are interested:
And this is the rather helpful list:

1.       Forgive yourself

2.       Stop comparing yourself to others

3.       Stop seeking approval

4.       Believe in yourself

5.       Practice silence

6.       Eat healthy and exercise
7.     Express yourself

Friday 13 April 2012

Cornerstone Habits

So the caffeine withdrawal headache is still there, but not as bad as yesterday.  I’m guessing I’m in for a few rocky days before my body gets used to the idea that we are on another mission.  100 days with no caffeinated drinks.  Why?  Well my reasoning is slightly different from last time.  Last time I wanted to find out how long it took to create a habit.  Naively I concluded about 100 days.  Boy was I wrong.  I think it can take years to override a habit you love like smoking or drinking (alcohol or caffeine), overeating or whatever.  Psychologists believe the habit will always be there, you just have to find ways to overcome it.  I’ve yet to experiment with how long it takes to establish a new good habit.
This time I’ve got two goals with my 100-day challenge.  Firstly, it’s to see if I function better without caffeine in my tea cup.  Secondly, it’s to see if certain techniques work and make it easier for me this time (last time I had three attempts over about a year and a bit).  You’ll hear about my experiences with both goals in the weeks to come, so find another blog now if this sounds marginally less interesting than the washing machine on spin cycle.

In fact, there is a sneaky third idea.  And that’s the idea of a cornerstone habit.  A cornerstone habit is a habit that starts off other good habits.  When I tried giving up caffeine a few years ago I found I was less likely to have a glass of wine in the evening, and more likely to exercise.  That sounds a bit like kicking-caffeine might be a cornerstone habit for me.  So I’m going to repeat the experiment and see what happens.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Caffeine Withdrawal

Will I ever learn? It’s not that I didn’t know about caffeine withdrawal, heaven knows I’ve been there often enough, but somehow I always forget. So after yesterday’s brilliant idea of restarting the 100-day caffeine-free challenge I woke up with a raging headache. Not a normal, little bit of a headache, but a huge horrid head-falling-off-shoulders headache.

The strange thing is, I didn’t think I was drinking so much tea that I would get withdrawal symptoms. Clearly, I was. And going cold turkey produces headaches, fatigue, drowsiness, irritability, difficulty concentrating and a host of other symptoms one wouldn’t normally choose. So, children, if you are going to try this at home I’d recommend the gradual step by step reduction. It has all the advantages of reducing or stopping your caffeine intake, and none of the disadvantages of feeling like you’ve been out all night drinking with your wildest friends.

Withdrawal symptoms apparently peak between one and two days after giving up, and last for two to nine days. So that’s something to look forward to …

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Self-discipline and caffeine

I talked yesterday about achieving goals and self-discipline.  Self-discipline is a recognised predictor of happiness, health, the ability to perform well in education, work and life in general.  So it’s an area worthy of some thought.  Like many people, I believe I have self-discipline in some areas, and less in others.  One interesting aspect of self-discipline (or self-control) is that there is some evidence that being disciplined in one area leads to improvements in other areas.  So increasing exercise, for example, leads to healthier eating, a higher propensity to stop smoking, etc.  They are known as cornerstone habits, and they lead to other seemingly unconnected good things happening.  

So at the risk of sending long-standing readers to the hills, I’m going to repeat my kicking-caffeine experiment.  For reasons I can’t quite remember, caffeine is back in my life.  I’m drinking reasonable amounts of green tea during the working day, and enjoying it immensely.  But for the sake of science, I’m going to document my experiences of not drinking caffeinated drinks for at least 100 days.  That's no coffee, no tea (black, white or green) and no Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Red Bull or the like (that won't be difficult for me as I don't drink them anyway). 

My experience to date is that habits are difficult to break or alter and that 100 days is the minimum  amount of time that is meaningful for such an attempt.  In true no-time-like-the-present style, I’m kicking off today.

It’s been almost 2 years since I tried this for the first time, and I’ve learnt a lot more about habits and self-control since then.  So in the days ahead I will fill you in on some of the techniques I have learnt that I hope will make this attempt a easier.  In the meantime, while you are all enjoying your coffee, I’m going to have another cup of Rooibos tea.  Yum!

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Achieving what’s Important

We all care about different goals.  Some want to run a marathon; others dream of getting a first for their art history degree.  Some care passionately about delivering an important project at work, and going on to yet greater responsibility and job satisfaction.  Others are frustrated with lack of success in completely different areas.  Whilst all our goals are very different, they are tied together with more commonality than differences.

What’s very clear is that achieving what’s important to us matters a lot.  It matters for our happiness, our financial security, and our ability to make choices in how we live our lives
There are just four steps to achieving your highest priorities:

1.      Be specific about what you want to achieve. 

2.      Plan what you will do to be successful.

3.      Make time to do the big, important things, as well as fitting in everything else.

4.      Stay in control of your days.

It’s short, specific and anyone can do it.  But not everyone does, even though there is a mountain of research to demonstrate that it works.  The reason for this anomaly, despite everyone’s protestations about how important their goals are, is equally short and specific.  It’s self-discipline.
It’s not that we don’t know what to do; it’s more that it’s a lot of effort to do it. 

A recent Horizon programme called “The Truth About Exercise” promised a way out of hours in the gym, at least for some people.  One minute of high intensity training, three times a week, can keep you fit.  Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Almost as good as a silver-bullet list for achieving your goals.  The difficulty is that one minute of truly high intensity training is not pleasant; I know because I’ve tried it.  I’d go as far as to say it’s unpleasant.  It’s certainly not an easy option, but it does get you fitter.
There’s the rub.  If you want to compete at the Olympics you have to get up early and train hard, so hard that you start to dream of opening a sweet shop in Devon.  If you want to achieve your goals you have to work at it - not on an exercise bike until you feel queasy, but at your desk until your brain hurts.  And then some.

The good news is that whilst you may not be a natural athlete, you can achieve important goals where you do have the necessary ability and motivation, providing you are disciplined enough to do what needs to be done.  Discipline isn’t a fashionable word, or a particularly agreeable notion in a world of instant-gratification.  On the plus side, if you want something badly enough, you don’t have to wait to win the lottery.  You can go out there and get it.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Are you are making progress?

“I’m like a little boat adrift in the ocean - I don’t know whether I’m 200 yards from land or 200 miles.”

When we are working under difficult conditions, it’s easy to lose sight of the basics.   The old saying “when you are up to your neck in alligators, don’t forget you came to drain the swap” is never more true when something is hard going.  We set out bright eyed and bushy tailed only to find everything a lot more difficult than we realised.  As time marches on our enthusiasm dwindles, and we start to wonder whether we will ever be successful.

I was talking to someone a few weeks ago about his business and he said he felt like a little boat adrift in the ocean.  He had no idea whether he was 200 yards from land, or 200 miles.  It’s not a nice feeling, and it’s all too easy to give up when you feel like that.  He was taking a step back to figure out what to do with this feeling.

What’s needed is to work out what’s important in your business, and to measure it.  In his business it was getting face to face meetings with people who have a need for his service.  As it turns out meetings with prospects is a lag indicator, rather than a lead indicator.  That is to say that the number of meetings with prospects is a result of work already done.  That work might be meeting new people at networking events, or having people request a white paper from your web site, or making a certain number of cold calls each week.  You know what the activities are that you need to do to create the circumstances where meetings with prospects start to get into your diary.  So the lead indicators are number of new people in your contacts database, the number of marketing communications sent out, etc.  The lag indicator is the number of meetings with prospects.  To say it another way, you reap what you sow. 

Coming back to this feeling of being a boat adrift in the ocean, it’s important to measure this activity.  Unless you know on average how many people you need to contact to generate a meeting you will never know where you are in the ocean.  If you don’t know where you are, your motivation takes a hit.  Without motivation you don’t do those upfront activities that are actually the life blood of your business.  So measurement isn’t a nice to have, it’s actually the map that guides our little boats through calm or chopping waters. 

I wrote about lead and lag indicators a while ago, if you want to have another look.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Clarity of Purpose

Anna Wintour: “People respond well to people who are sure of what they want.”

We somehow think that a clear purpose will come to us from above, as the Ten Commandments were given to Moses, or as Buddha achieved enlightenment sitting under the Bodhi  tree.  Some people are lucky enough to know early on their where their talents and interests lie.  Anna Wintour reckoned she was just 15 when her career in fashion was fixed[1].    For the rest of us, being clear about our purpose is hard work. 

There is no escaping the fact that a clear vision is essential to the success of any organisation, and essential to the success of those within the organisation.  

If being clear about your purpose was easy, though, everyone would be highly focused on their specific goals.  Sadly, that’s not the case for one very simple reason: being clear about your purpose means making a choice.  By choosing one path you close off others.  For many people that is very difficult; the grass always looks greener someplace else, particularly when things don’t turn out as you planned.  So our attention wanders to something we think might be more profitable, more interesting, or just plain different from the problems we are facing.  However, that is exactly why clarity of purpose is so powerful; choosing forces you to focus your time, resources, and energy on one thing.  And doing one thing vastly improve your chances of success.  The old saying that the hunter who cases two rabbits catches neither one is as true in business as it is in the woods.  

When we are sure we are doing the right thing, we can sink ourselves fully into the activity.  Free from distractions, we become absorbed in our work.  Disturbances that would normally cause annoyance are ignored as we focus on the job.   Concentration and effectiveness are at their highest when we have absolute clarity about what we are doing and why we are doing it.

[1] When Anna Wintour was just 21 years old she told her co-workers that she wanted to be Editor of Vogue.  She achieved her ambition in 1988 and 24 years later she is still Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue.

Monday 2 April 2012

Be Sure of What you Want

Driven, ambitious and competitive; this is hardly the description you would expect of someone born into a wealthy family.  But it might be more understandable when you know the person’s father.  Charles Wintour was editor of the London Evening Standard following a decorated military career.  His daughter Anna obviously inherited his coolness under fire.

Anna Wintour is, of course, the legendary editor-in-chief of American Vogue who was savagely depicted in The Devil Wears Prada.  Ms Wintour is characteristically unruffled by such things.  She has been editor of Vogue since 1988 and has a loyal following from friends and staff.    She is unrepentant about her management style, saying[1] “people respond well to people who are sure of what they want”.  Her skill of course is both knowing what she wants, and being mostly right.   Her track record is impressive and Vogue continues to be an icon for all that is desirable in fashion and lifestyle.  It has made and broken many promising careers.

Being sure of what you want sounds simple enough, but reaching the point of clarity and being able to communicate it clearly isn’t always easy.  Without that clarity, however, decision making becomes laboured and people confused.  Your decisions may or may not be popular, as is the case with Ms Wintour, but at least people know where they stand.

Friday 17 February 2012

What Steve Jobs Taught Me

Let me say at the outset that I didn’t know Steve Jobs, or ever work with him.  In fact I haven’t even read the book that EVERYONE seems to be reading at the moment – his biography by Walter Isaacson.  And I don’t intend to anytime soon.  Which I guess makes me supremely unqualified to write about any lessons he taught anyone. 

But Steve Jobs did, apparently, teach me one thing. 

It doesn’t involve any form of computing, is completely unconnected to tablets or smart phones, and is so ordinary that it doesn’t even begin to give away its power. 

What is it?  It is planning in analog. 
Unusually for me, I didn’t even need to read a book to get the idea; it came in a freely downloadable pdf.  Plan in analog.  So simple, so obvious, but so, so powerful.

I happened to be working on a presentation and tried the idea out.  I replaced my much loved but very broken fountain pen with a sleek, inexpensive silver number and invested in a nice notebook (without a power pack).  And I started to write.  And draw bubbles.  And more bubbles.  Turned the page and did it again.  For hours on end. 
It is notable how the brain is free to think creatively when it doesn’t get caught up worrying about point sizes, or whether boxes are lined up.  I thought about my BIG IDEAS.  I criticized them, turned the page and started again.  I have pages and pages of mind maps, notes, crossings out and ideas that run off the edge of the page.  Pen and paper isn’t nearly as flexible or forgiving of mistakes as my Office software, but it is superb at freeing the mind.

I hope I produced a better presentation with my inspiration from Steve Jobs.  I know I created it more quickly than if I hadn’t done my pen and paper planning.  I guess I won’t know until it closes a sale or makes an entire audience stand up to applaud. 

The process has taught me an important lesson – pre-planning on paper should be given plenty of time.  It produces better structure, better ideas, and hopefully a better end result.  It certainly saves time. 

I shall credit Steve Jobs with the lesson.  It’s not as earth-shattering as the iPhone or iPad, but looking at his presentations I can well believe he devoted considerable time to worrying about big ideas before worrying about how it might look on the screen.

Watch “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs” by Camine Gallo here:  His book “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience” is also well worth a read.  OK – I’ll admit to having read that one!

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Want to do Great Things? Be Under-Employed

My yoga teacher was always telling me to slow down: “What’s the rush? Put your suitcases down and let the train carry you along”.  I was always the one late to the class, worrying about something and fidgeting to leave before the end.  “We are human beings”, he would calmly point out, “not human doings”.

“Just being” was, and still is, very hard for me.  While I could hardly sit still for a moment, he seemed to spend his days taking long walks in the woods, practicing yoga and volunteering at the local hospice.  His serenity and calmness was a world away from my life of busy activity.

But rush doesn’t accomplish much.  Running around trying to get lots done, without time to think or rest, leads to burn out and confusion.  James Watson, who together with Francis Crick discovered DNA, said “It’s necessary to be slightly under-employed if you are to do something significant”.  I’ve always found that a rather shocking and controversial idea when I try to make good use of every moment.  Their breakthrough was one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the last Century, and laid the foundation stones for molecular biology.

Beethoven also understood the need to let his mind relax and come back refreshed.  He worked only from sunrise until two or three o’clock in the afternoon.  His mornings also included a number of breaks outdoors, where he “worked while walking.”  He never worked in the evenings.

Beethoven struggled with his compositions, working and reworking themes over and over again, yet he created some of the most beautiful music ever composed. 

Whilst it is counter-intuitive, it seems that making time to do nothing pays off; even if your ambitions are less lofty than discovering DNA or writing a symphony.

Tuesday 31 January 2012

Weekly Meetings

Meetings get a lot of bad press: too many, badly run, no preparation and of negligible value.  Yet meetings can be tremendously valuable.  A weekly meeting is an opportunity to plan and review, and to set the tone for the upcoming week’s work. 

Steve Jobs had a meeting each Monday with his executives to review all the products in development.  “Eighty per cent is the same as it was the last week, and we just walk down it every single week,” Jobs said in an interview with Fortune in 2008.  “We don't have a lot of process at Apple, but that's one of the few things we do just to all stay on the same page."

I know if I were an executive at Apple I’d make sure I was up to speed by the end of Friday on what progress had been made, and what the plan was for next week because if I didn’t know, I’d be getting a roasting on Monday morning.  So not only did Jobs create accountability and visibility with these meetings, but he also made sure that all his executives had reviewed the past week and planned the upcoming week.  Sure, this was something they should have been doing anyway, but that Monday morning meeting made sure of it.  Not bad for 60 minutes of everyone’s time. 

Steve Jobs: An Unconventional Leader, The Sunday Morning Herald, Australia: 

Friday 27 January 2012

Eat and Sleep Routines

“You wouldn’t forget to eat or sleep, would you?”  I can still remember the piercing gaze staring at me across the table.  “So why did you forget to write your monthly report?”  The message was crystal clear, if not completely logical. 

My boss was telling me in no uncertain terms to make my monthly report as habitual as eating and sleeping; if I wanted to carry on working for her, of course.
It’s a lesson I have never forgotten, even though it was many years ago.  When something is as habitual as eating and sleeping, it doesn’t get forgotten.  Ever.  I know other people who also treat their monthly reports with the same reverence; they don’t forget either.  You don’t need to add it to your “to do” list, you don’t need to worry about it, you just do it.  As easily as you eat and sleep. 

The difficulty, of course, is that some pretty powerful mechanisms were designed into us to make sure we don’t forget to eat or sleep.  The same cannot be said of monthly reports. 

But if you can make something into an “eat and sleep” routine you have found a pretty powerful way of increasing your effectiveness. 

Benjamin Franklin recognised the benefits of cultivating positive habits.  He called them his 13 virtues and he spent many years of his life trying to live by them.  He wrote about them in his autobiography and it is an early glimpse we have of how difficult it is to change behaviour. 

There is a lot of guff out there on the magical World Wide Web about how it takes 30 days to form a habit.  I can muster quite a lot of evidence to say this is codswallop.  It takes much longer, particularly if the habits are difficult.  So we need reminders and rewards.  We need persistence and perseverance.  And we need to keep our new habit visible, so we don’t forget what we are trying to do.  Even after many months or years, we still have to be vigilant in not letting it slip.  Benjamin Franklin used a little paper notebook for most of his life to try to make his 13 virtues as natural as eating or sleeping. 

If all this sounds like a lot of effort, I’m afraid it is.  But the payoff is enormous.  Good exercise habits are not easy to cultivate, but they keep us out of hospital; as do good eating habits.  Good working habits are every bit as difficult, but lead to a more productive and effective career.  It may take more effort, but the rewards are there for the taking. 

So what sorts of habits improve effectiveness?  Strangely, the monthly report is one of them, or at least it has the same effect.  Reviewing and evaluating our work on a regular basis leads to better decision making.  It’s not rocket science, but also not easy to do.  It is, however, very effective.  As is good planning; equally difficult to do on a regular basis, but invaluable if you want to be effective and successful.

My old boss is now a millionaire several times over and looks younger now than when I was working for her.  So her advice is perhaps worth listening to. She also had the uncanny knack of putting the fear of God into the people who worked for her, but that’s a completely different story …

Wednesday 25 January 2012

How to concentrate for longer

It seems the modern world is designed to de-focus and distract us from whatever we are trying to do.  E-mail pops into our inbox every few minutes, or the phone rings.  Thoughtful people don’t call, but text, so the phone is never far away.  Of course a text is far too interesting not to read, even if it’s only the bank or when the shopping will be delivered.  So we are distracted anyway.

I see mothers walking their children and talking on the phone.  We can’t get out for a refreshing walk without staying in contact. 
We are now so used to constant interruptions and distractions that if there are no emails, no texts, or no phone calls, we double check our email, or go online for diversion.

Welcome to the digital age – designed to make our lives easy.   Now three screens is the norm, and our attention span is short and getting shorter. 
Concentrating on what we are doing is hard work.  Focusing requires discipline.  The brain wanders easily and often.  Thoughts and ideas pop into our heads all the time.  Try sitting still for 5 minutes and thinking about just one thing; a candle, a diamond or a flower.  Notice how many times your mind wanders.  Each time it wanders bring it back to the thing you are focusing on.  Notice how it wanders off again.  And again.  You will lose count how many times you have to bring it back to the task in hand, in just 5 minutes.

Focusing may be difficult, but it is also very necessary to produce anything worthwhile.
20 minutes seems to be the generally accepted length of time that a healthy adult can focus on something, although it will be longer if you are comfortable and proficient in the work.  So difficult things, problem solving, things you are learning for the first time or trying to master are more difficult to focus on for long periods of time.

So if you are unfocussed and distracted, you are not alone.  But crucially you are not as productive as you could be, which means you won’t achieve as much as you would like. 
So what’s to be done?  How can distractions be cut down and concentration improved?  Here are 7 ideas:
  1. Turn off email (yes, I know, but do it anyway)
  2. Take time to get become more proficient in your field
  3. Put your phone in a drawer for a couple of hours (you can pick up messages later)
  4. Be clear about the purpose of your task (this takes a bit of pre-planning, but increases your productivity)
  5. Use a stop watch.  Start the timer when you start work, and stop it when you get distracted.  Note how long you spent concentrating, and then little by little try to increase your concentration time.
  6. Get out of the office and work in the library, park or zoo
  7. Reward yourself for 1,000 words written, half the job done, or the phone call made.  Your reward could be a 10 minute break in the fresh air, or picking up flowers on the way home depending on how difficult the task was, and how long it’s been on your “to do” list.
One final thought on this vexing matter of improving concentration.  If we accept that good quality, focused work is difficult, we may want to be a little pickier about what we tackle.  Saying “no” to some, not doing others, or simply checking out how useful they are could save time for something more important.  And when you are sure you should be doing something, you will find concentrating a great deal easier anyway. 

Tuesday 24 January 2012

What’s the Big Idea?

We are all working for something; whether it’s to pay for our children’s education, buy a house near the sea, or build a worthwhile business.  Everyone’s big ideas are different, but we all have them. 

Yet although these big ideas are important, often we don’t give them much attention.   It’s rare for them to be written down, or looked at from month to month.   Often they stay in the back of our minds as “someday-maybe” ideas; perhaps because we’re not sure we can achieve them we don’t dare hope.
Yet one of the biggest differences between successful people and others is that high achievers write down their goals, and make plans to progress them. 

Jim Collins called them BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals.  Stephen Covey referred to it as “Begin with the End in Mind”.  Many writers and successful people have, over many years, stressed the importance of knowing what you want to achieve.  So figuring out what is most important to you is a good first step in making them happen.  Then you need to commit them to paper or hard disk.
Of course there are many different types of people.  Whilst some people will recognise this reluctance to commit big, important ideas to paper, other people have lots of big ideas and write them down all the time.  They have so many ideas and dreams and plans, they can barely keep track of them all.  Their list of “Big Things To Do” is long, and gets longer by the day.

The Chinese wryly point out that “The man who chases two rabbits, catches none”.    So whilst it’s great to be creative and generate ideas, it’s vital not to get lost amongst the noise of what could, should or might be done.  Decide what's most important, even if it takes some thinking, reworking and crossings out. 
This list may have about half a dozen items on it, maybe a few more or perhaps a couple less - certainly no more than nine.  Why?  Because we can only focus on a couple of things at a time, so the more that goes onto the list, the less likely it is you will achieve them.  It’s better to have fewer, big ideas and get them done, than to have a shopping list as long as your elbow that gets ignored.

Monday 9 January 2012

Working with calmness and composure

By knowing how long things take

It is stressful and unpleasant being late for an important deadline. 
There is nothing elegant or enjoyable about running, red faced and flustered to catch a train.  And it is traumatic and disruptive burning the midnight oil to finish a key report that was started too late.  Creative juices do not flow and it’s not good a good way to work, or to live.  Of course what I’m describing here is different from being in “flow mode” where you are so lost in your work that you don’t notice the time. 

Being on time, with a little time to spare has much to recommend it by, not least the higher quality of work that gets done.  Planning ahead, having time to think, and finishing things to a high quality causes less worry and is more enjoyable.  It encourages “flow mode” because the brain isn’t stuck in "panic mode".

Repeatedly hitting deadlines without compromising quality requires a number of things to get done:

1.     Creative thinking or brainstorming about how to give it the “wow factor” (less appropriate for catching the train, more appropriate for key reports).  Sometimes referred to as the “fuzzy front end” it can have dead-ends and wasted work, but is important nonetheless.

2.     Identifying tasks - figuring out what needs to be done (talking to certain people, reading around the subject, checking the train timetable, etc)

3.     Estimating how long things might take (easy for how long the train will take to get to Edinburgh, less easy for creating and agreeing an outline for a report)

4.     Planning what will be done when, and who will do what.

5.     Creating checklists for repeating tasks.

6.     Accounting for other things that need to be done – so you can be confident that you are working on the right thing, at the right time, without another problem cropping up elsewhere.

7.     Working the plan – trying to do what you said you were going to do, when you said you were going to do it.  And trying to get everyone else to do what they said they were going to do, when they said they would do it.

8.     Reviewing and adjusting – either for this project, or for the next one.

Reading through that list makes me, and probably you, realise just how much scope for error there is in the whole process.  Not least because things take longer than we think they will take, other people don’t do what they said they would do, etc. etc.  To such a degree that many people don’t believe it’s worthwhile to make a plan because “things change anyway”.
A particularly difficult (but crucial) step in this process is estimating.  Figuring out how long things might take is difficult for many reasons, but up at the top of the list is the belief that whatever it is we are doing is a “one-off”, with the second being optimism.  The “one-off” argument says that this project is different from the last one, and that the problems encountered on the last project won’t be encountered on this one, which inevitably leads to optimism.  Instead of thinking we will have different problems, we think we won’t have any, and therefore believe the new project will be quicker to do. 

How do I know, for example, how long it might take me to write this blog article?  I don’t know when I start how long it will be, or how complicated the subject matter might turn out to be.  The only way to know is to time myself when I write blog articles - long ones, short ones, difficult ones and easy ones.

Only then will I know whether I'm likely to finish one before I have to leave the office to catch a training in 45 minutes.  Otherwises I'm likely to start, get absorbed and then end up running for the train.

I appreciate that timing what we do is counter-intuitive, but much of what we depend on today were once considered alien.  Like the trains running (roughly) on time or knowing how long a policy document might take to write.

All the planning in the world is useless if everything takes twice as long as the plan says it should take to complete.  Or even longer.

Friday 6 January 2012

The value of knowing where time goes

Time and tide, as we all know, wait for no man.  There’s no better time of year to be reminded of that as we review the past year.  What projects did you complete?  Which ones weren’t even started?  What should have got done, but didn’t?  What was important to you?  What was your greatest success?  What was your greatest failure?  What would you do differently if you could replay the year again?

It’s an interesting exercise, and if you haven’t yet reviewed the year I’d urge you to do so.  I gained a number of insights from reviewing my 2011.
Certainly, the big things that I accomplished during 2011 were done with the aid of quite a bit of planning, focus and time.  Now that’s not to say that everything that gets planed, focus on and time to will have a successful outcome, unfortunately, but it does increase the chances.  And when I look back over my life at my major successes, I also recall the planning, focus and time that went into them. 

Which brings me to the value of knowing where time goes.  Because of the nature of my work, I analyse how my time is spent.  It provides an invaluable additional dimension to reviewing the year.  I can see how much time I spent on various different activities, and how much time I spent on my important projects.  It gives me another lever to make changes – whether I should be giving more or less time to certain activities or projects.
I don’t think many people do this, perhaps because it reminds us of “clocking in and clocking out” and “command and control” type management systems.  No one likes someone breathing down their necks to see what they are doing every minute of the day.  And sometimes we don’t want to see the unpalatable truth ourselves.  But, certainly for me, unless I know where my time goes, I’m in danger of not giving enough attention to the important-but-not-urgent things. 

Eisenhower apparently remarked that “what is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”  Which may go some way to explain why important things don’t always get done.

So one of my New Year resolutions is to track my time more carefully, and analyse it side by side with the big things I’ve want to do this year.  As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of measuring things.  It will be interesting to see whether increased focus in this area brings about improvements.