Time-eating monsters

Do you remember the story of Hercules battling the Hydra? Every time Hercules cut off one of Hydra’s heads, three more appeared in its place. The harder and faster he fought, the more easily the monster overpowered him. Until he got smart.

Here’s today’s version. You delete one email; three more appear. You turn in a terrific project on time and you’re given another, tougher one, with a tighter deadline. You make one decision, three more stick their heads up. You’re running fast, but in danger of being overtaken by monsters sucking up all your time.

So what to do? You start earlier, finish later and take work home on the weekends. When you work harder and faster, burnout is the likely result.  And you still fall behind and the monsters are catching up, because there are always more things to do than time to do them.

The head-slicing thing didn’t work with Hydra and it doesn’t work with time-sucking monsters, either. You have to get smart (and you know from last week’s chat that multi-tasking is not smart). Here’s what is smart:

First, tackle the recurring and predictable problems and find a way to prevent them from occurring in the first place. For instance, when you’re always being interrupted to answer the same questions, put a system in place to answer them automatically, or answer them before they’re asked, or show people where they can find the answer themselves. In other words, don’t keep chopping a head off, cauterise it (which is what Hercules did when he cut off one of Hydra’s heads, ’till finally, the headless Hydra was no more).

Then, take a look in the mirror and ask yourself how you contribute to your time-sucking monsters. Are some of them there because you keep putting things off until they become a crisis? Are others there because you don’t do them well enough in the first place, so they come back to you? Maybe some are there because you weren’t clear about what you really wanted to achieve or what was needed? You know how to deal with those monsters, don’t you.

To finally banish the remaining time-sucking monsters, stay on top of your important tasks and do them right first time, before they become urgent. No more time-sucking monsters.


How to be more productive and less frenzied

Thanks to downsizing and the wizardry of modern technology, people often find themselves doing the jobs of two, three or even four people. You don’t even have time to scratch yourself. Even at home — so much to do, so little time.

So the temptation to knock off as many birds as you can with one stone, i.e. to multi-task, is pretty big. But it’s usually a mistake, because it means you do none of the tasks very well and often, you need to do them a second or even a third time, to get them right. (And not getting them right is bad, bad, bad.) In the end, multi-tasking leads to rework that actually takes more time than if you’d concentrated on doing it right first time.

Not only that, but when you multi-task, you’re really just switching quickly from one task to another and back again. Computers can do that. People can’t. Unlike computers, human brains have to do a quick, ‘Now where was I?’ catch-up. Even when you’re not conscious of it, your brain has to make the decision to switch tasks, then switch, and then warm up to the new task. That might only take half a second, but it all adds up to wasted time when you do a lot of multi-tasking. That’s why we’re generally much better doing one task at a time and sticking with it for as long as we can.

Here’s the exception: really simple tasks you can do on automatic pilot. You can do two or three or even four routine things at a time. You can walk, chew gum (unless you’re in Singapore), hum a tune, and look for koalas and possums in the trees (when you’re in Australia) all at the same time, for instance.

But when you need your brain to pay attention, stop the multi-tasking and concentrate. You get a better job done in less time that way.

You can further boost your productivity by grouping your work into like activities. Write some emails, read some reports, then make a few phone calls. Don’t try to do all three at once and don’t hop from one to another.

The more you have on your plate, the more important it is to set priorities. And stick to them. Don’t get distracted by emails, phone calls or friendly chats. Know what the most important things to do are and keep working on them, one at a time. When you’re interrupted, and you will be, make a quick note of where you were up to so you can go straight back to that priority task with a much shorter ‘Now where was I?’ catch-up.

Being in high gear all the time reduces your productivity and increases your stress. So concentrate on one meaningful task at a time and do it right – first time. Go for quality. You’ll be more productive and less frenzied.

Add ten years to your life

A study from the Mayo Clinic proved that an optimistic attitude can extend your life by up to 20%. For most of us, that’s more than ten years. And not only does a rosy outlook help us live longer, it helps us enjoy our lives more. That’s because optimists are generally more active and mentally fit in their later years than old grumps.

Probably the easiest way to increase your positivity quotient and with it, your longevity and happiness quotients, is to surround yourself with other optimists, because good spirits are catching.

Another easy thing you can do is put your attention onto what is going well and what is good in your life. Now, for some people, that’s kind of hard. If you’re working in a toxic environment or burdened with working long hours just to keep up, keeping the chin up can be a challenge. Other people are just naturally pessimistic.

Whatever the cause, if you tend to see the glass half empty rather than half full, here’s what to do: Recognise a negative thought when you have one and immediately replace it with a more positive thought. You might reframe it, for instance, or take your mind to a happy place for a minute to reduce your stress level. Be diligent about this because after three weeks, it will have become a habit.

Are you a hard core pessimist? You might also need to take five minutes at the beginning of every day to actually write down something you’re looking forward to that day. And take five minutes at night to jot down five things you’re grateful for, maybe simple things like the great weather or your pretty garden, or big things, like your health and your family. Those two easy actions will dramatically boost your outlook on life and with it, your longevity.

The bottom line is: Our thoughts create our life, so, to live a long and happy life, think happy thoughts. It might sound simple, but it’s powerful and it works.

Plus, you’ll be a better role model to your team and your family.


Dealing with a crisis

Fashion gurus say to wear clothes that are in proportion to your figure. That’s good advice for dealing with a crisis, too — keep it in proportion. Don’t panic, because that’s when you’re likely to make matters worse. And don’t stick your finger in the proverbial dyke and pretend you’ve dealt with it, because that makes it likely that it will blow up in your face sooner or later.

Take a deep breath and assess the situation. You need to get out of your ‘reptilian brain’ and into your ‘thinking brain’. Once you’re there, you can decide what you need to do – right now – to minimise the fallout and get on the road to recovery. For example, if a project is in danger of missing a deadline, maybe you can offer some incentives to speed things up, bring someone in to help with the workload, or eliminate some of the non-essential tasks in order to get back on track.

Now analyse. What actually has happened? How many people, and who, are affected and how are they affected? What assumptions are you making? What are the key variables? What is the most important issue, the one that by solving it, will significantly remove or diminish the others?

Next, plan.What are your objectives for resolving the major issue? What actions do you need to take to achieve those objectives? How can you assess your success? What other action can you take to remedy the situation or at least, make it ‘less bad’? When the crisis is a hum dinger, you might want to develop some best-case, worst-case and most-likely-case scenarios and develop plans for those.

A good plan helps you act confidently and effectively, especially when you’ve protected it with a force field analysis to capitalise on the forces working to help your plan succeed and mitigate or remove the forces working against your plan’s success.

Let your stakeholders know what’s going on and what your recovery plan is. They may have some good ideas to add and some other perspectives to consider. When the crisis is your fault, a sincere apology is a smart move.

When you have time to catch your breath, figure out what caused the crisis in the first place – not to lay blame but so that you can make sure a similar crisis never happens again.

R A M it home!

Have you ever asked someone to do something for you, like adopt a new procedure or take on different job duties, and it wasn’t done as you’d hoped or expected? Or wasn’t even done at all?

Survey after survey tells us that up to three quarters of change efforts fail. Old habits are hard to break; those strong, old neural pathways just keep resurfacing and smothering the new ones we’re trying to build.

That’s why asking people to change the way they do something, or just to do something, is often not as simple as it seems. Here’s a little memory jogger – RAM – to remind you how to RAM what you want home without ramming it down people’s throats.

R – Realistic: Make sure what you ask is sensible and practical. Is the person interested in doing it? What’s in it for them? (Ye olde WIFM)

A – Achievable: Does the person have the time and resources (tools, equipment, information, your shared vision) to do it? Do they know how to do it?

M – Measurable: This makes what you’re asking clear, so people know precisely what you’re looking for from them. When they don’t know precisely what you want, the chances you get it are slim. Explain what you want, why you want it and why you’re aksking that person to do it (and not someone else), when you want it and how or how well you want it done (when that isn’t immediately obvious).

The next time you ask someone to do something for you or to do something differently, RAM it home so you get what you expect.