Cut, Cut, Cut: Elimination Strategies To Boost Productivity

start-vs-stop-list

Elimination is an underrated productivity strategy we all need to practice. It’s one of the best ways to eliminate that “crazy busy” feeling that make the week feel like a long slog.

If elimination is such a great strategy, why isn’t it more popular? There’s a few reasons to consider. First, cultural pressure starting in high school (I have to be well rounded to get into college/university with top grades and “extra-curricular activities”!) stresses adding activities as the path to success. Second, you have “people pleasing” behavior: many of us like to make others feel happy by saying yes to new requests. How do we overcome this scenario?

Elimination Fueled Productivity For Individuals

Becoming more productive through elimination is rewarding once you get started. Before you start the elimination process, you need a positive aim.

1. Identify Your #1 Goal

What are you making room for with elimination? To get started, identify your number one goal. You may have multiple goals for the year (I have 10 for 2017). In that case, I encourage you to use the question from “The One Thing” book (see further reading for details).

One Thing Question:

What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

Tip: Do several of your other goals require money (e.g. contribute to investment accounts, take courses, travel)? In that case, your #1 goal will likely involve earning more money.

2. Brainstorm An Elimination List of 10 Ideas

Now that you have a clear goal in mind, it is time to come up with elimination ideas. The focus is on volume, rather than quality. Here are examples that I recently came up with:

1. Unsubscribe from email lists that no longer interest me (use Unroll.me – I recently cut 50+ no longer relevant email subscriptions from my inbox)

2. Throw away 5 items of old clothing that is worn out (makes it easier to assess clothing options)

3. Review current subscriptions: are there magazine subscriptions to eliminate (I find 1-2 per month goes a long way)

4. Automate one bill payment for monthly payment (e.g. my cell phone bill is currently a manual payment)

5. Review recurring meetings on my professional calendar: are there any to eliminate or consolidate?

6. Make a list of monthly reports I produce and check if the audience truly needs them (here’s how to ask that: “What would happen if I stopped delivering this report?”). This method has been a major time saver for me in the corporate world.

7. Review volunteer commitments for value and meaning. Volunteering is worthwhile… However, you need to keep such activities in the context of the rest of your life. For example, if want to deliver a project or program directly then serving on a committee may not be fulfilling.

8. Reduce digital clutter. Earlier this week, I cleaned up my office computer so that there is only one row of icons. It’s a small way to add clarity and order to your world. The same can be said of smart phone apps.

9. Job Responsibility Creep. Over time, many of us take on random “extra duties” at work. Now is the time to look at those and ask yourself if they make sense with your review. For example, maybe you are asked to serve as a subject matter expert on call to other departments but that distracts you from creating code. In that case, use the same process as point 6 above to pursue elimination.

10. Reduce social media time. Social media can be wonderful! However, these services make it easy to lose a whole afternoon (or more) in mindless clicking that does little but add anxiety to your life. If this scenario rings true for you, consider setting schedule boundaries (e.g. no social media after 6pm) to keep these tools in check.

Note: Ask yourself if you can eliminate a task or activity entirely first. If that is not feasible, consider reducing frequency or automation options.

3. Implement 1 Elimination Change Within 24 Hours

Now the rubber meets the road. It’s time to get to action. Review the list of elimination options you identified in the previous step. To get started with the process, choose the easiest one to eliminate (i.e. that takes 15 minutes or less time). If all you need to do is log into a website, this step will be easy.

If your elimination idea is more complex – killing a corporate report – you can still act. How? In 15 minutes, write up what why you want to eliminate the report, who receives it and send a calendar invitation to propose eliminating it.

4. Proactively Schedule Maker Time

Noted investor and essayist Paul Graham draws a distinction between “Manager Time” and “Maker Time” in his classic essay Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. In project management, it’s easy to fall into the trap of allocating most or all of your energy in the “manager” mode. However, that’s not going to cut it if you want to achieve your goals.

Before you finish this article, take action to put maker time on your calendar. In my case, I recently added Maker Time for Saturdays and Sunday mornings. Why those times? I like to have long stretches of uninterrupted time and the weekends are best for that. There’s no reason you can’t make a similar block on week days.

Further Reading on Productivity & Elimination

To continue your productivity journey of elimination, explore these books and articles. Remember to keep the focus on your purpose. What will you do with the extra time and energy? Apply it to your One Thing goal! (Of course, if you’re burned out from work, rest and relaxation is a great choice as well.)

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Do you want a book length treatment on focusing on what matters to the exclusion of all else? This is the book for you.

The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results By Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. It’s one of the best productivity books I’ve read. I appreciate the care and attention the authors took with research and tactical advice. I hope that a future addition will illustrate the One Thing principle with additional examples and case studies.

How to Say “No” When It Matters Most (or “Why I’m Taking a Long ‘Startup Vacation’”) by Tim Ferriss. Long time readers will know that Tim Ferriss is an inspiration to me (a favorite Christmas present from 2016 was his newest book “Tools of Titans”). In this article, Ferriss explains why he decided to take a ‘vacation’ from startup investing. Here’s what’s most striking about that move – this investing activity is probably one of the most (i.e. 10X-100X returns in some cases) lucrative activities in his career… Yet he decided to call it quits. Read the article for the details and what led to the decision.

Stop Doing Low-Value Work. This Harvard Business Review article by Priscilla Claman defines several circumstances where you have a great opportunity to cut low value work from your plate such as during job transitions.

Things to Stop Doing in 2015. Written by Sarah Green Carmichael and Gretchen Gavett in Harvard Business Review, this article has great suggestions. Stop sitting so much is one of the tips! Fortunately, my office recently upgraded to “stand-sit” desks so I’m well on my way to less sitting.

My First Week With The Productivity Planner

The Productivity Planner
The Productivity Planner

Constraints and systems are an important part of productivity. The assumption that you have infinite time and resources makes it easy to get sloppy and get less done. Unfortunately, some digital tools encourage you to believe that you have unlimited attention and resources to work on your goals.

What if the secret to achieving more of your goals came down to forcing yourself to do fewer, high value tasks?

Experiences With Digital Tools: The Infinite To Do List

Digital tools such as Microsoft Office, Google Calendar, Nozbe and Evernote have all been part of my toolkit. Yet, I find myself using these tools less often for daily task management in recent months. They still play a role. I keep my annual goals in Evernote which I review daily. My Google Calendar is an indispensable tool for setting reminders and managing appointments.

Yet calendars and digital task management tools have one major limitation.

The infinite to-do list.

Let’s break this done.

You can just keep adding tasks to the list until you completely overwhelm yourself. Before you know it, you have 28 tasks planned for the day and then feel frustrated when you complete 11 low value tasks only to live the mission critical task undone.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

One solution is to move to a paper journal for daily tasks. That acts as a constraint and a system to guide your thinking. It’s a powerful idea that I first encountered in Tim Ferriss’s book “The 4 Hour Workweek.” As I recall, he encouraged using 3×5 index cards. I quite like this approach and use it. Yet, it has one significant limitation: index cards are disposable and it is difficult to review them over time.

Further Reading: For more on the merits of systems, reading Taylor Pearson’s excellent essays such as 5 Mental Models To Create Dramatically More Leverage.

Experimenting With The Productivity Planner

Headquartered in Toronto, Intelligent Change is best known for the 5 Minute Journal. As I wrote on Success.com, I believe in the value of keeping a journal as a way to better understand yourself and your goals (How to Get Started on Journaling).

Keeping a journal has many different benefits in business and beyond. I used a food/health journal back in 2012 which was a key part in reducing my weight by over 50 pounds in a six month period. Seeing my activity tracked and knowing that I had to “report to myself” on the journal was helpful.

But I digress. Back to Intelligent Change and their new product, The Productivity Planner.

I was impressed by the 5 Minute Journal so I decided to experiment with the Productivity Planner. On October 31st, I bought a copy of the journal and got to work.  I’ve had a good experience with it over the past few days. Much like the 5 Minute Journal, the Productivity Planner takes only a few minutes to use each day. I tend to write up my plan for day while I have my morning coffee – it is a manageable way to plan the day.

Reasons Why The Productivity Planner Is Great

I found The Productivity Planner a pleasure to use and an excellent way to organize myself to achieve high value tasks.

1. Design.

I appreciate the simple elegant design of the journal in terms of the outside cover and internal layout. As Apple has shown, it’s pleasant to use a well designed product.

2. The Productivity Guide.

Unlike some journals that simply present you with blank pages, the Productivity Planner includes a short book at the beginning to guide you through the process. If you are unfamiliar with productivity research and best practices, it will be especially helpful.

3. Focus on Pomodoro Technique.

Did you know that deliberately taking short breaks helps your productivity? That’s the whole premise behind the Pomodoro Technique. You work for 25 minutes on a single task, then take a 5 minute break. The details are somewhat flexible: John Lee Dumas has a daily ritual that includes an adapted Pomodoro Technique – a 53 minute work session followed by a slightly longer break. On each day’s entry, you estimate how many work sessions

Resource: Curious to learn more about how to use Pomodoro Technique, check out my article “25 Minutes To Increase Productivity.”

4. Daily Focus.

The Productivity Planner encourages you to focus on 3-5 tasks each day. That means you have to take a few minutes to think about which tasks truly matter for achieving your goals. Here’s a hint “Catch on email” has yet to make my daily list (though it might when I get home from a long vacation in December).

This aspect of the journal makes a big difference in daily productivity. Before I commit a task to the journal, I ask myself whether it will matter at the end of the day. It’s a helpful way to prompt reflection as I plan my day.

5. Daily Inspirational Quotes.

I don’t know about you, but I really like to start the day or end the day with an interesting quote. Here’s a quote I picked up this week from the journal: “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them” from David Allen (author of Getting Things Done, a classic productivity book)

6. Planning The Week.

I like the single page “plan the week’s most important tasks.” The idea is to answer the question “If I could only get these 5 tasks done this week, would I be satisfied with my progress? In project work, planning a week is usually easy to manage.

7. Looking back – The Weekly Review.

The Weekly Review is one the best ways to stay organized and focused on your priorities. The challenge with a traditional weekly review is that it may feel overwhelming. The Productivity Planner weekly review is a single page. Further, there are good points to guide the process: Weekly Wins, What Tasks Were Not Completed Last Week?, What Have You Learned This Week, Next Week.

Discussion Question For The Comments:

What has been your experience using productivity planning tools like The Productivity Planner?

13 Statistics On The State of Work In 2016: Meetings, Productivity & Conflict

office-productivity

What’s happening in the world of work in 2016? To answer that question, I reviewed the U.S. State of Enterprise Work Report from Workfront. Here are some of the highlights from the report. I’ve also provided links to resources to help you become more productive, get better at meetings and get ahead.

Overall Trends For U.S. Office Workers

Here are some of the data points from the survey that stood out to me. I was most surprised by the short lunch breaks that people tend to take. A rest in the middle of the day is a valuable way to refresh yourself and take on more activities in the rest of the day.

  • The top reasons people work according to the report: Pay the bills (76%), mental challenge (27%), fulfill my goals (21%), learn new skills to grow my career (14%).
  • The top motivational factors at work according to the survey:  Chance for bonus and/or higher salary (29%), appreciation/recognition from superiors (22%), promotions and/or opportunities to advance my professional skills (18%), reaching or exceeding goals (14%)
  • 45.1 hours. That’s the average amount of hours worked for office workers according to the survey (a small increase over 2015)
  • 9-11am: Time period reported as being the most productive. In contrast, the least productive time period is 3-5pm.
  • Email and spreadsheets are the most popular work tools for office workers

Trends For Project Managers

What findings does the report have for the work of projects? Here are four data points from the survey.

Meetings are an important tool in the project manager’s toolbox. Yet, many people perceive meetings as wasteful. Given this finding, it is more important than ever to design and run effective meetings that make decisions and move projects forward.

  • Keep meetings to a minimum. — 59% of U.S. workers surveyed said wasteful meetings are the biggest hindrance to productivity. For project managers looking to stay on top of timelines and get the most quality work out of their team members, it’s important to know which meetings are necessary and how you can execute meetings that don’t waste your team’s time. Use meetings to discuss resolutions and next steps in the project, not rehash tasks or processes that are already known or completed.

Email is a highly popular and flexible tool. Yet, poor email habits slow many of us down. Part of the problem is a lack of productivity and task management system.

  • According to the State of Work report, 43% of survey respondents said answering and organizing email is a major distraction from assigned projects, and I think we all feel that pain. Project managers should work with the decision-makers in their department to identify useful tools and resources that can bring collaboration and communication into a central hub. This lets email act as the venue for immediate needs or new interactions with external sources (a necessary evil), and the collaboration tool is used for all comments, input and revisions to actual work. In addition being a collaboration and communications hub, it can also be used to track team bandwidth and resource management.

There is a major productivity improvement opportunity available. Consider the following observation:

  • 92% of survey respondents said they feel productive at their jobs. Given the fact that only 39% of our time is spent on our primary job duties, that’s a good sign project managers are succeeding at guiding team members in the right direction through what might be heavy-workload weeks. However, it may also mean teams are perceiving a higher level of productivity than they are actually performing. Taking the time to evaluate processes, tools and traditional components to project management may pay off in output and avoiding burnout in the long run.

Power tools for PM success —

  • 70% of workers either already use a project management tool or would like to. For any size team, a project management tool has become as vital as a computer. Even for a sole proprietor, logging hours and assets against that work is made so much more efficient through a project management tool. Every team has different needs, and it’s important to reflect inward before researching the available tools that meet those needs. Project managers are the drivers of those conversations, as they know their team’s challenges and talents, preferences and dislikes better than anyone else in the company.

Escape From Shallow Work with “Deep Work” (Book Review)

Deep Work by Cal Newport Book Cover

I finished reading Cal Newport‘s new book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World a few days ago. It has adjusted my thinking on productivity. The classic productivity books like Getting Things Done by David Allen (want to know more? read this: Leading Yourself With Getting Things Done) are often interpreted as a ‘task management system.’ Newport’s book argues that raw task accomplishment is not enough. We need to focus our energy on high value activities or or what he calls “deep work.”

Two Ways To Think About Your Work

Through book, Newport regularly compares and contrasts shallow and deep work. Let’s clarify with his definitions:

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

The degree to which the work is demanding on your capabilities is a key point. Newport also makes an economic distinction. With few exceptions, deep work tends to produce greater value and rewards. Why? Deep work tends to lead to mastery, new insights and improved skills. If deep work is so great, why don’t we practice it already? It comes down to distraction.

Why You You’re So Distracted: The Impact of Habit Forming Products

What comes to mind when you read the phrase ‘habit forming products’? Tobacco? For many of us, that’s not the challenge. Instead, the challenge is how and when to use what Newport calls “network tools.” In that broad category, he includes Facebook, email, social media, smart phones and more. It’s no accident these products and services are constantly grabbing your attention. A recent book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products delves into the psychology and methods to create this distracting (addictive?) products. If you find it difficult to focus, it’s not entirely your fault. There’s an industry of designers, engineers and consultants who are working at making these services difficult to resist.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Ok, so what can I do about this?” Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Keep reading!

Identify The High Value Activities For Your Profession

Doing the right work is underappreciated. Usually, there are a few activities truly matter. For research professors seeking tenure, publishing articles in highly respected publications is the most important activity. For sales professionals, time spent interacting with qualified prospects is the most important activity. I’m keen on this principle. Yet, I’m struggling with how to apply it to analyst roles or project management jobs. “Deliver the project” seems too broad. Perhaps the application is to aggressive manage the most important person (i.e. your boss, the client or the sponsor) because neglected clients will tend to get upset even if the project metrics look good.

Read: “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan.

Use Fixed Schedule Productivity

In the productivity world, there’s an ongoing debate between focusing on your schedule versus focusing on your task list. Clearly both matter; it is a question of priority. I like to use the “3 big tasks” each day strategy where each of the tasks connects to my annual goals (i.e. write and promoting this blog post connects to my goal to grow my email list – you can sign up here: Sign Up For the ProjectManagementHacks Email Newsletter). Newport makes the case for using a schedule approach.

Read the following article for a detailed explanation of this approach: How I Accomplish a Large Amount of Work in a Small Number of Work Hours

Improve Your Email Habits

Handling email is a major source of shallow work for all professionals – especially those who work in project management. Let’s take a look at some of Newport’s suggestions to cut back on email. Remember, the point of cutting back on email is to free up time to work on deep work activity.

Tip #1: Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work

Newport uses his practice of discouraging email correspondents with this example:

If you want to reach me, I offer only a special-purpose e-mail address that comes with conditions and a lowered expectation that I’ll respond: If you have an offer, opportunity, or introduction that might make my life more interesting, e-mail me at interesting [at] calnewport.com. For the reasons stated above, I’ll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests.

Evaluation: I love the principle but it will likely be very difficult to adopt if you are an employee. If you have a way in mind to implement this idea, please share by writing a comment below.

Tip #2: Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E-mails

It’s easy to dash off a quick response simply to “get it off your plate.” Newport points out this frantic approach often generate even more email because others need clarification. How do you improve? Newport’s solution is to use templates and a process approach to improve email.

The process-centric approach to e-mail can significantly mitigate the impact of this technology on your time and attention. There are two reasons for this effect. First, it reduces the number of e-mails in your inbox—sometimes significantly (something as simple as scheduling a coffee meeting can easily spiral into half a dozen or more messages over a period of many days, if you’re not careful about your replies).

Example: You need to arrange a meeting time with a coworker.

Bad Approach: “Let’s meet sometime”

Better Approach: “Let’s meet at the following dates and times (3 options).”

Evaluation: Yes, this is a fantastic principle!

Tip #3: Don’t Respond

Could silence be the best solution to never ending email? Here is Newport’s explanation:

As a graduate student at MIT, I had the opportunity to interact with famous academics. In doing so, I noticed that many shared a fascinating and somewhat rare approach to e-mail: Their default behavior when receiving an e-mail message is to not respond. Over time, I learned the philosophy driving this behavior: When it comes to e-mail, they believed, it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile.

Evaluation: An interesting approach! It reminds me of email strategy that Tim Ferriss advocates in The 4 Hour Workweek.

Question For The Comment Section:

How do you improve your focus on high value deep work activities?

How To Work From Home Successfully

Image Credit: Work From Home Success (Pixabay.com)
Image Credit: Work From Home Success (Pixabay.com)

Working from home is a hot topic for staff and managers at many companies. Staff are interested in the arrangement to reduce commuting time, travel expenses and address other needs in their lives. Managers support working from home to stay competitive, to access talent from other locations, and to reduce stress. The case for working from home is clear. Yet many people struggle to do it effectively.

Work from home success requires advance preparation and navigating blind spots. Read on to get ready and then find out how to avoid common failure points.

What Work From Home Jobs Exist?

In the research for this article, I found some surprising anxiety online. There are many people who have searched for “work from home jobs” and been disappointed by what they find. As the New York Times reported (Telecommuting Can Make the Office a Lonely Place, a Study Says) this year, some evidence suggests that remote work leads to: ” the researchers found that the employees who chose to continue working in the office ended up feeling lonely and disconnected.” Adjust your expectations accordingly.

Before covering advice on how to make it work, let’s cover the three main types of work from home scenarios.

  • Part Time Work From Home. Many companies allow their staff to work from home one to two days per week, with the rest of the week at the office. This is probably the most common work from home arrangement at large companies. Gallup reported that “U.S. workers say they telecommute from home rather than go into the office about two days per month, on average. Nine percent of workers say they telecommute more than 10 workdays — meaning at least half of all workdays — in a typical month” in 2015. This arrangement is commonly part of a broader work life balance strategy that includes flexible working hours, programs for parents and the like.
  • Full Time Remote Staff. What if you could work from home all the time as an employee? That’s the definition of this scenario. It is less common than the part time scenario. That said, I have known at least two people at a large bank with this arrangement. One person I know works from home four days per week and commutes to the office on the other day. Another person I know works from home and travels to the office once or twice per month. In both cases, the individuals requested this arrangement. It is also worth noting that they are fairly senior level professionals. If you are under the age of 40, do not have a family and/or do not live far (e.g. 100 km / 60 miles or further) from the office, this arrangement will be challenging to obtain.
  • Entrepreneur/Self-Employed Scenario. Those pursuing self-employed careers usually have partial to complete autonomy over where and when they work. There are trade offs needed to achieve this flexibility: starting a business, developing sales and marketing skills and accepting a high level of uncertainty. For more guidance on starting a business on a budget, I recommend “The $100 Startup” by Chris Guillebeau.

This article will focus on the first two scenarios of working from home as an employee.

Getting Ready To Work From Home: Your 3 Point Checklist

Use this three step process to gather information on the feasibility of working from home in your current circumstance. All three factors need to be in place in order to work from home successfully.

  • Job Analysis. The starting point is to understand the flexibility potential of your current job.

At one end of the spectrum, there are traditional jobs – retail and the trades, for instance – that are highly unlikely to provide the work from home option. At the other end of the spectrum, there are knowledge worker activities such as writing, research, technology development, and design. If you can do 80% or more of your job by yourself or with modern communication tools (the Internet, phone, etc), then working from home is a possibility. If you spend most of your work time physically performing actions (e.g. painting, moving objects or laying bricks), then remote work is out of the picture for you unless you move to a new job.

  • Company Analysis. Put aside company policies and policies for this analysis.

Instead, ask “How many people do I know at this organization who work from home on a regular basis?” If you can name at least two people, then you have a starting point to build on. If you cannot think of anyone, ask around for examples in your internal network. If you still find no examples, then it is time to face the facts: the organization does not currently support work from home. All hope is not lost. You could be the first person to work from home. If you decide to be a trailblazer, especially at a large established company, be prepared to face extra scrutiny.

Resource: Check out Fortune’s great article “100 Best Companies for Working from Home” if you decide to switch companies in order to achieve work from home flexibility. The list is an interesting mix of large firms (e.g Apple, Dell, IBM, American Express, General Electric) and other organizations.

  • Home Analysis. Some home environments are better suited to work from home than others.

An ideal arrangement is to have a home office room with a desk and a door because you can set up a permanent home office there. An alternative is to set up a temporary work site each day at the kitchen table, the coach or somewhere else. Other points to assess: noise levels (e.g. nearby construction, loud pets etc), reliability of your Internet service provider and your personal ability to focus on work while at home.

Don’t be discouraged if you find your work from home arrangements are less than ideal. That’s how it goes for most people. One final note on preparation: start with the bare minimum in terms of equipment and supplies. If discover you need to purchase more office supplies and equipment, Amazon is only a click away. Finally, check with your employer may reimburse you for some work from home offices such as a headset for taking business phone calls.

Three Communication Mistakes To Avoid When Working From Home

Effective communication determines much of our success, so create a foundation for success by avoiding these mistakes. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. Please feel free to add your observations and ideas in the comments.

1. Failing To Become More Proactive

When you work from home, you miss out on the “oh, by the way” conversations that mark office life. I don’t know of a full solution to this problem. A partial solution is to increase your outbound communication. What does that mean? It means calling various people on the people (e.g. 2-3 people per day) for a few minutes to sustain connection. Waiting for other people to contact you is a recipe for increasing isolation.

2. Becoming Too Reliant On Email

Email is a wonderful tool, but it is limited. If you are developing an idea or proposal, you may struggle to put those ideas into written form. In other cases, you need to have a ‘crucial conversation’ to solve a problem or resolve a conflict with another person. In those two circumstances, use phone calls, video Skype calls and in-person visits to improve the quality of your communication.

  • Tip: I recommend the “2 email rule” for deciding when to pick up the phone. Once you have had two emails go and back and the issue remains unresolved, it is time to pick up the phone. A short phone call works wonders (see “The Tim Ferriss Superpower“)

3. The ‘Business Robot’ Trap: Becoming “All Business, All The Time”

As a long time fan of both Spock and Tuvok, this is an area where I face some challenges. As an introvert and pro-Vulcan person, it’s easy to focus on the business and neglect personality. If you face a similar challenge, be aware that working from home will make exaggerate your “Vulcan” (read: “cold” or “robotic”) tendencies. This is a problem because you may fail to notice and appreciate the emotional needs of others. In this area, I will refer you to a helpful article on Psychology Today: “How to Increase Your Emotional Intelligence ― 6 Essentials.”

Note: Sharing your interests – such as my love of Star Trek and science fiction – is one way to connect with other people.

Share Your View In The Comments

What is one mistake you’ve made (and learned from!) when working from home?

Book Review: The Productivity Project

The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey

This month, I read “The Productivity Project” by Chris Bailey. I received a complimentary copy from the publisher and have found it to be an excellent read. The productivity and time management genre has long been one of the most popular fields in business books. Bailey’s contribution is notable for his strong research, experimental approach and helpful exercises. In this review, I will discuss various aspects of the book that I found helpful and interesting.

The Three Productivity Factors: Time, Attention and Energy

In the modern knowledge economy, there are three key personal factors that drive productivity. Bailey explains that time, attention and energy are key input factors to manage. At first glance, some people describe productivity as simply another label for time management. This book shows that time management per se matters yet it is not the most important factor. Self-management makes a huge impact to our attention and energy. The productive value of an hour varies considerably based on your current state.

Let’s illustrate that with an example based on sleep habits. When I manage to only get 5-6 hours of sleep, I find that life is much more difficult to manage. A type of mental fog filled with above average amounts of negative emotions cloud my whole day. In contrast, I find that I am in a better mood and better able to sustain productive activity based on a full night’s sleep.

Tip: Use the strategy #1 from Neville Medhora’s Problem Solving Checklist as a resource if you find your abilities are not performing at their best.

Bailey’s Experimental Approach

I first came across Chris Bailey’s outstanding blog – A Life of Productivity – a few months ago and I was immediately impressed. Bailey’s commitment to long form writing, analysis and experimenting with different approaches attracted my attention. His willingness to track results, numbers and share his findings reminds me of Tim Ferriss’s earlier work on productivity. The world needs more experimentation and validation for productivity ideas, so I hope Bailey continues his work.

In some ways, the most valuable insight from the book is to apply an experimental perspective on your daily work. Throughout the book, Bailey provides a number of productivity challenges to the reader. There’s nothing new to exercises or workbook elements to a business book. Bailey’s innovation is to provide a rating (e.g. the fun rating for this challenge: 8/10) and estimated time for completion. Whether you adopt his specific experiments, I think there is great value in adopting an experimental approach to your work. You can use proven habits and routines 80% of the time and tinker with new methods the remaining 20% of the time.

Productivity Habits And Practices To Consider

Let’s explore a few of the specific productivity tips and methods that Bailey develops in the book. Some of these ideas were familiar to me (and likely to other readers of the genre). Yet, Bailey does us a service when he reminds us that “common sense is not common practice.”

The Rule of Three

This is an outstanding principle use to increase productivity. In brief, you write a short list of three tasks that must be accomplished for the day. I have used this practice for months. My challenge with it is that I often feel a need to keep working beyond the three. Every day’s energy level and capacity is a bit different so it takes practice to get this right.

Tip: I use the 5 Minute Journal to focus on the rule of three.

Conduct High Level Reviews

I have previously written about the Weekly Review practice that I learned from David Allen. It is an excellent practice that is well worth learning. Bailey extends the review practice and takes it to a broader horizon. His review practice includes several key categories of life such as mind, relationships, health and career. I wonder if this higher level review might work better for me on a monthly or bi-weekly basis.

Use Maintenance Day To Keep Life In Order

In reviewing all of the tasks we complete in a week, many of them fall into the maintenance category. These tasks – such as cleaning and eating a good diet – do not directly contribute to our professional goals. Yet neglecting these activities quickly causes problems, unease and frustration. Bailey recommends putting all of these tasks – as much as possible – onto a single day of the week. I also second his suggestion to enjoy podcasts or audio books while going through these tasks. Hmm! I ought to write a blog post about podcasts. Stay tuned for more!

Practice Thoughtful Trade Offs

Enjoying a few drinks, a cup of coffee or a late night out often means losing out on part of the next day’s productivity. Bailey points out that many of these activities mean directly impact sleep duration and quality. Fortunately, he doesn’t recommend a program of abstaining completely. The productive approach is to simply plan ahead. If you have a job interview or major presentation tomorrow, it makes sense to get an early night.

Improve Productivity Through Self-Care

Bailey makes great points that mindfulness, good sleep habits and diet have a major impact on our productivity. I think he is on the right track when he suggests that cutting an hour of sleep means two hours of lost productivity. If your work requires problem solving, analysis and other creative skills, taking care of yourself is an important aspect of promoting productivity.

Managing the Productivity Vs Work Ratio

When you first get excited about productivity, it is easy to get carried away with the options. There are many productivity apps to experiment with and hacks to use. Bailey points out that one can do too much productivity activity and lose out on getting actual work done. I once heard a 10% rule in planning (i.e. use 10% of a project’s planned time for planning). A similar principle could be applied to productivity. If you have a 40 hour work week, limit productivity activities (e.g. planning, reviews, using task managers etc) to 4 hours per week or less.

Where To Buy The Book

This book makes an excellent addition to your productivity library. Here are links to more information about the book and where you can buy it.

 

 

How To Engineer A Morning Office Routine

Image Credit: Breakfast (Pixabay.com)
Image Credit: Breakfast (Pixabay.com)

The first hour of the work day impacts your productivity for the entire day. In this article, you will learn how to design morning habits and develop an intentional approach to starting your day.

In the past few years, morning routines has become a hot topic in books and on the Internet. Books such as The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod and The 5am Miracle by Jeff Sanders make the case for waking up early and starting your day with positive habits. Both those authors have had a positive influence on how I start my mornings. Both books focus on personal development, habits and personal goals – all valuable points to pursue.

Here’s what missing – how do you apply the morning routine framework to your professional career? Adapting to the office environment means understanding the pressures and realities of that context. Let’s cover the barriers to an office morning routine and the ways to start your day well despite the distractions.

The Distractions of the Modern Office

The rise and widespread use of the open office format makes it difficult to stay focused on your key tasks. The physical environment is only one factor to consider. Consider the following typical challenges office professionals face.

  • Noise. A constant drum of conversations, phone calls, printers and other sounds make for a distracting office. This factor is especially important if you tend to operate as an introvert.
  • Reactive Email Habits. It is common practice to start the work day by reviewing emails. Unfortunately, that practice means you are likely to work on tasks with little or no connection to your goals, especially at higher levels of responsibility.
  • Socializing. In the proper amounts and context, there are benefits to office socializing. It helps to build trust and transform a group of people into a team. It is easy to use to get carried away with these conversations so that poses a risk to your productivity.
  • Too Many Meetings. If your work day starts with meetings, your ability to focus will be undermined. There is an established practice in Scrum to have a daily check-in meeting (“the daily scrum“). This practice has value yet it should not be your first office task.
  • Personal Procrastination. Coping with the stress of office life leads some people to indulge in extended personal procrastination – putting off valuable tasks early in the day. This habit takes several forms: eating a long breakfast at your desk, browsing social media websites like Facebook for an extended period and more.

All of these pressures make it more difficult to start your day effectively. These habits and drift mean valuable morning hours – a time when most people have high energy and mental focus – are lost. Fortunately, it does not have to be that way. You can design a morning office routine that suits your goals and environment.

How To Start An Effective Morning Office Routine

Building a better morning routine involves changing your habits and it is well worth the effort. You will need to adjust the details to suit your specific situation. If you adopt all the practices below, the whole process takes about 30 minutes (the “inbox zero” practice usually takes the longest to complete). Here are a few elements of a successful morning routine that work well in the modern office.

  • Arrive Early. Arriving in the office 15-60 minutes before the majority of other people in your department is a key step. When I started to arrive at the office at 8:30 or 8:00 in the morning, I found it was easier to focus and get the rest of the day under control.
  • Make Coffee/Tea. In my office, the login process to the corporate network takes several minutes to complete. I like to make a cup of coffee or tea in the morning while that process is underway. Of course, other drinks such as a glass of water are also a great choice.
  • Plan 3 Wins. I learned this practice from using The 5 Minute Journal last year and it makes a major difference. Imagine you are at the end of the work day: what are three concrete wins that would make for a productive day? Limiting yourself to three points makes it easy to manage. If you’re not sure where to begin, I suggest reviewing your annual objectives and design tasks that align to those objectives.
  • Review Today’s Calendar. A brief review of your calendar will early in the day will help you to get ready for important meetings. Of course, your calendar is more than a list of meetings. I recommend noting reminders for yourself, especially for following up with other people and reminders to make progress on large tasks.
  • Achieve Morning Email Inbox Zero. Perfecting the art of sorting through your email inbox quickly takes practice. I use a simple system to keep this under control. Emails from “VIPs” (e.g. managers and executives) get attention first and often create tasks. Information bulletins, notices and reports are usually filed away. To further improve your email skills, read 12 Ways To Use Email Better.
  • Enjoy A Small Reward. Taking a few minutes to enjoy a small morning reward makes the whole process more appealing. Given the limits of the office environment, you have a few options. Reading something you enjoy (e.g. 2-3 pages from your current book, your favorite blog or newspaper) is one move. You can also take a walk around the floor to say hi to a friend.

Further Reading On Morning Routines.

There is a growing field of productivity authors and experts who have covered the topic of effective morning routines. Explore these resources to continue your journey to effective morning routines and habits.

The 5 AM Miracle by Jeff Sanders. Sanders’s runs a podcast and has published a book based on his morning routine. He does good work on linking an early morning practice to goals and productivity.

The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. This was the first book I read that explored and defined the morning routine concept in detail. Elrod explains a multi-part process to creating an effective morning. I have used parts of the process (e.g. reading and exercise) and find it valuable.

My Morning Routine. This website collects and publishes morning routines from a variety of people in different professions. Here are some samples to give you a sense of the website: YUKO SHIMIZU (an artist and teacher based in New York), IVANKA TRUMP (real estate executive), and RYAN HOLIDAY (best-selling author and marketing expert).

Calendar Your Way To Success: The 11 Habits You Need

Image Credit: Pixabay.com
Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Your calendar habits will make or break your success. In this article, you will learn calendar habits to improve your focus and productivity.

Basic Calendar Habits

I don’t know where you are in your productivity journey so I will begin with the basics. Remember that you get the greatest value from habits by consistently application.

1. Review Today’s Calendar

Reading your daily calendar at the start of the day is a foundation habit that takes only a few minutes each day. I find it particularly valuable to note meetings and travel time in the daily calendar review.

2. Review Tomorrow`s Calendar

This is a great end of day calendar habit that puts you into a proactive frame of mind. You may notice a meeting that needs to be rescheduled. Or reading your calendar may remind of you of some additional tasks to complete.

3. Create “Meetings with Myself”

This task is important for people who work in organizations with “shared calendars.” If your organization uses Microsoft Outlook for example, you can often view the calendar availability of most people. This feature is designed to make it easy to book meetings. However, it is easy to accept too many appointments and become overwhelmed. How do you avoid that problem? Easy. Put an appointment on your calendar called “Block” or “High Priority Tasks.” By putting that information on your calendar, you will increase the time available for high value tasks.

4. Schedule Travel Time

I learned the value of travel time scheduling a few years ago when I had to travel for meetings. When I say travel, you might be thinking of planes and trains. In actual fact, my office travel was usually traveling to different offices in the same city or between floors of the same building. Without travel time on the schedule, you are likely to be late.

  • Tip: Avoid scheduling “back to back” meetings because you will not be able to accommodate travel. The only exception to consider to this rule are conference call meetings.

5. Write Down All Appointments (Personal and Professional)

This is an important rule. It is also a rule that I struggle with from time to time. If your calendar lacks complete details, it will not deliver results for you. It is a habit to develop over time. Using easy calendar tools (e.g. Google Calendar) makes this process easier.

Advanced Calendar Habits

Once you have the basic habits developed to some level, it is time to develop advanced habits. Some of these ideas may be familiar to you. In that case, consider Samuel Johnson’s observation: “Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.” Ask yourself if you are applying these habits, not whether you have heard of them before.

6. Write Supporting Details In Calendar Entries

Taking note of supporting information on your calendar is a great way to increase your productivity. I find it helpful to include supporting information such as: phone numbers, full names, physical addresses, and travel notes. By including this information, you have everything you need in one place.

  • Resource: Are you traveling for business? Improve your productivity further with this excellent Manager Tools podcast: Travel EMP.

7. Complete Weekly Reviews

Regular reviews of your calendar – last week and the current week – is a valuable habit to develop. For a detailed overview of my process, please read this article: Why You Need A Weekly Review. For the best results, I recommend reviewing both business and personal calendars (if they are different). Developing a Weekly Review habit is one of the best ways to prevent unwelcome surprises.

8. Create Repeating Appointments

Repeating appointments are one of those practices that make the a big difference. It is the productivity equivalent of cleaning your home weekly instead of an annual clean up.

Let me share a finance example. Once upon a time, I did a monthly expense review (i.e. review charges applied to my department for accuracy). I would often detect incorrect charges that required investigation and action to correct. In addition, correcting the errors took a long time because the errors were being reviewed weeks after the event. This fall, I changed the practice to a weekly financial report review. As a result, errors are corrected more quickly.

Here are other possibilities for repeating appointments:

  • Birthday reminders. You may want to set a reminder a week in advance so you can consider sending a card and/or a gift.
  • Holiday reminders. Holidays are even more enjoyable when you plan for them in advance!
  • “Big Meeting” Prep reminders. You might have a quarterly meeting with executives in your organization. Setting a reminder for this meeting (perhaps another one to give you a week’s notice to get ready) improves your productivity.

9. Minimize your productivity toolkit

It’s easy and fun to get excited about productivity tools, apps and products. Earlier this year, I wrote an article, “10 Apps For Highly Productive Project Managers,” which became popular and attracted quite a few comments. It was a good discussion.

That said, constant switching and experimenting with different productivity eats away at your productivity. Given that reality, I recommend choosing the smallest number of productivity tools.

Here are three tools that you need for a bare minimum

  • Calendar: Google Calendar is my favorite.
  • Task Manager: I  use Remember The Milk.
  • Notebook: I like the Moleskine Notebook (sometimes you just need to have a paper notebook.)

10. Say no to others

Saying no is an essential calendar habit to develop. Your approach will vary depending on your “productivity season of life.” If you are coming up in the business with few responsibilities, you may say yes over and over again to obtain more opportunities.

In any case, ensure that your “no” response is polite and professional. In a coarse world, being polite is the right thing to do and a way to stand out in a positive way.

11. Say no to yourself

In calendar management, saying no to yourself is a difficult habit to develop. There are several approaches you can take to manage your focus more effectively. For example, you can limit technology distractions using focus enhancing tools (e.g. FreedomFocusWriter or Focus@Will). Another approach is to change your working location from time to time. If you work in a traditional office, you could book a meeting room for yourself for 1-2 hours to cut out on background noise.

Question for the comments:

What habits have you developed to effectively manage your calendar?

Three Principles To Boost Your Productivity This Week

Super high resolution 3D render of freeway sign, next exit... Productivity!
Super high resolution 3D render of freeway sign, next exit… Productivity!

Delivering getting more done in the same amount of time. That’s the Hoyl Grail of the productivity movement.

I have studied productivity books, experts and courses for years. It has been a rewarding study and I look forward to sharing some of those insights with you. In this article, I will cover three enduring productivity strategies. As you read, look for one idea that will make a difference to your situation. You can always bookmark this article and come back later to read it.

Defining Productivity For You

There are many definitions of productivity, so it makes sense to define the concept for a moment. In economics, productivity is a central concept that explains living standards:

The bottom line: If a country wants its standard of living to rise over the long run, its labor productivity has to go up. And for that to happen, it either has to save more or innovate.” (Productivity entry in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics)

That’s a useful definition if you are running a country or a large organization. What if you are seeking to improve your personal productivity? The definition above can be adopted to suit our needs. Here is my definition of productivity for today’s article:

“Productivity is the completion of a task that relates to your goals or important values.”

This definition of productivity points that that completing any random task is not productive. Most of us have goals – either assigned by someone else (an employer, a client or project charter) or created on our own. In addition, we all have guiding values we use to navigate through life. For example, if you value your health then it is productive to seek exercise, sleep and eat well.

The Three Key Productivity Principles

These three key points address the big picture of productivity. Without clarity on these points, it is unlikely you will ever feel you have “done enough.” My thinking on this point is shaped by the excellent book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less” by Greg McKeown.com which I read last year.

1. Determine Your Priorities

This is a big question so let’s get more specific. This blog focuses on career development for project managers. How can you determine your priorities in your work? Consider the following sources:

  • Annual Review Process. Understanding what you are going to be measured on at the end of the year is helpful to know. For example, project delivery may be considered 80% of your role. The remaining 20% of your role might include providing support for corporate goals (e.g. community volunteer projects or brand promotion) or ad hoc assignments from your manager.
  • “Stretch” Goals. If you are seeking promotion, it is vital to obtain and deliver against challenging assignments. Delivering one or two such assignments per year is a great way to improve your visibility and develop new skills.
  • Career Development. Highly effective professionals have ideas for their career development. It could be a financial goal (e.g. earn $100,000 a year by 2017) or something else. Others may have the goal to become a freelancer or entrepreneur to achieve greater schedule flexibility.

Note: A goal setting best practice I learned from Michael Hyatt is to limit your annual goals to about 9-12 goals. That goal list will also include non-work goals (e.g. a travel goal, a hobby goal and other possibilities)

2. Decide Your Season of Life

We all go through different seasons of life. The life of a single twenty five year old new professional is fairly different from a forty five year married professional with children. What we do at work matters. The rest of life matters even more. So take a few minutes to consider your season of life.

3. What Can You Stop Doing?

Elimination of low value tasks and distractions is vital to becoming more productive. However, this is also the most challenging principle! Why? To stop doing something, you have to say no. Fortunately, it is easier to say no to tasks, projects and activities when you have put some thought into the above points.

Examples From A Stop Doing List

  • Automation. Using an automated method to accomplish tasks means less dull work for you. In the personal finance context, you can allocate a fixed percentage of your income to go into investments each month. That practice saves time and tends to improve your results. In the work context, you may write some Visual Basic code to automate producing an Excel report.
  • Elimination. Saying no is the core of elimination. As I write this article in December, I have started to see people go through year end cleaning routines. Throwing out old papers and files creates greater mental clarity for many people. Other possibilities include revisiting your participation in corporate committees and volunteer groups.
  • Managing York Work & Capacity. If you are a manager, team lead or project manager, you have tasks that you could assign to somebody else. For example, you may delegate a financial analysis project responsibility to someone else on your team. Delegation gives that person the opportunity to learn new skills and gives you additional productive capacity.

Further Reading on Productivity

Productivity is a vast topic and there are plenty of great resources out there. Here are some suggestions to help you continue your productivity education.

11 Books To Make You Lead A Much More Productive Life. Earlier this year, I wrote this article on Lifehack.org. If you are looking to build your productivity library, this is a great place to start (especially if you received an Amazon gift card for Christmas!)

Productivityist. Created by fellow Canadian Mike Vardy, Productivityist is a great productivity blog and training resource. Earlier this year, I wrote The Most Important Trait To Boost Your Productivity for the website which explains how to improve productivity through lifelong learning.

The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. Reading this book for the second time in 2014 was a key inspiration for founding Project Management Hacks. For added resources, I recommend listening to the Tim Ferriss Show podcast. Ferriss has interviewed highly accomplished people in many fields and draws interesting lessons from them.

Getting Things Done by David Allen. This classic book is simply a must read. I have written before about the value of the Weekly Review, a great practice that I learned from David Allen.