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.

Trouncing technological distractions

The same research I mentioned last week that showed information workers are interrupted every 4 to 11 minutes also found that half of those interruptions are self-initiated! I suspect that also applies to people studying. I can tell you with certainty that it also applies to people who write books and blogs—that would be me.

The sad fact is, you are just as likely to interrupt yourself as to be interrupted by someone or something else. People in open plan offices interrupt themselves the most and I imagine that’s because of the distractions. You get distracted by someone in a nearby desk talking on the phone, you’ve lost concentration, and since your concentration is blown anyway, you do a quick self interruption of Internet surfing or solitaire or Facebooking or twittering or whatever takes your fancy.

You can’t prevent all interruptions, but you can choose prevent half of them by not interrupting yourself.

Technology is a huge distraction and, for many people, it’s an addiction as well as a time waster. It easily diverts your attention and energy to trivia. (Are you wondering whether you’re addicted? You probably are if you check your smart phone every 15 minutes or less. Gradually limit the time you spend checking your technology and don’t take it to bed with you: the blue colour of the LEDs spoils your sleep, which prevents you learning and consolidating the day’s events.)

If your job means you need to stay connected to technology, take a 10-minute break every hour and a half: take a walk, sit quietly, walk up a flight of stairs.

Otherwise, turn your electronic gizmos off when you don’t need them so you can use technology strategically. Accept you can’t read every email, tweet, social media post or news feed, nor can you post five times a day or tweet eight times a day (unless it’s part of your job to do so). Let your computer sort that incoming information into folders so you can read it when it suits you. And, by the way, respond and share only what adds value.

Don’t multitask with technology, either. Multitasking in general places a huge burden on your brain and the resulting mental fatigue takes its toll in mistakes, shallow thinking and poor self-regulation. Your brain’s control network loses the plot when it’s overwhelmed from multitasking or working towards too many goals (that’s why seven key result areas is the top limit). Too much multitasking, especially with technology, means your memory suffers and your behaviour is driven by immediate, situational cues—whatever distraction grabs your attention—instead of being aimed at your priorities.

Let your technology save you time, not waste your time!

Is your boss a micro-manager?

Some people are naturally detail-oriented. Some get nervous when they don’t feel fully on top of things. Others just like to tell people what to do. There are lots of reasons a person can become a micro-manager.

So how can you cope with a boss who provides so much guidance and support that your productivity suffers? Here are some ideas.

Micro-managers need to know what’s going on, so provide plenty of information, even to the point where you think it’s overkill. Find out the sort of information your boss most needs in order to feel comfortable (action plans, analyses, examples, facts, figures, summaries …) and provide it.

Agree priorities so that, should your boss concentrate on trivia and unimportant details, you can keep your attention on vital, value-adding work. When you need to, explain that you plan to attend to the other work as soon as you’ve completed the high-priority work you’ve agreed.

Meet your deadlines. Keep your boss well informed as you reach each milestone on the way and what your next step is. Make sure that next step is one you can complete before your next update, so that your boss can see clear progress.

Of course, there are two good reasons a person becomes a micro-manager:

  1. the employee is new to a task and on a steep learning curve
  2. the employee is under-performing.

Ask yourself whether either applies to you and whether you’re the only one being micro-managed. When that isn’t the case, do everything you can to help your boss relax and feel confident that you’re both on the same page.



What is your ideal working style?

Last week, we considered the plight of the humble bee. Bee colonies are dying out worldwide due to overwork, putting our food supplies in jeopardy since we depend on bees to pollinate so many of our food crops. Future food supplies aside, working too hard doesn’t do people much good, either.

At a lecture at the University of South Australia, Professor Ellen Kossoki from Michigan State University’s School of Law and Industrial Relations shed some light, based on her research, on how we can prevent our bodies and our productivity from collapsing from overwork. There are three physical and psychological ways we can manage the boundaries between work and family, pay most attention to what we most value, and our relationships. She calls them integrator, separator and volleyer.

But first, three questions. On a scale of one to five:

  • Do you attend to personal and family issues at work often, rarely or somewhere in between?
  • How often do you think about work at home?
  • Do you take work home by, for example, making work-related phone calls or attending to emails during the evenings, weekends and holidays?

Integrators mix their work and personal lives. Separators isolate work and personal tasks and commitments. Volleyers switch back and forth between integrating and separating; for example, they’re separators when travelling and integrators when at home. Academics, tax accountants and others whose work is cyclical are often volleyers.

To work optimally and achieve satisfaction, you need to work in the way that makes you most comfortable. Separators, for instance, need to guard against allowing technology to force them to integrate work and personal time.

Professor Kossoki also suggests keeping a time log tallying the time you spend on yourself, resting, working, exercising and so on. Turn it into a pie chart. Then make another pie chart showing how ideally you would divide your time between these activities. Then compare your two pie charts to see how well you align your values with how you spend your 168 hours a week and make any changes you need to so that you, not technology, careerism or anything else, prevents you from being the architect of your life.

Remember that your team members may not work the same way you do or as each other, either.

What to do when you have too much to do

Rush, rush, rush. Busy, busy, busy. But being busy isn’t the point. Moving towards your goals and living your values is the point. And how do you attain that sought-after but often elusive state of affairs?

First, you need to know what you value most. Straight away, that tells you what activities to tackle–those that are in line with your values, and what activities to drop–those that don’t mesh with your values.

Then you need to know your goals. You know what your work goals are (and if you don’t–better get reading Chapter 11!). But what do you want to achieve in other areas of your life? For instance, as a parent, partner, friend and community member? What do you aspire to regarding your mental and physical health? Concentrating your efforts on only one or two areas of your life makes you lop-sided while being a well-rounded person helps you achieve more in each area of your life.

Once you know what you value most and what you want to achieve in various areas of your life, you’re in a position to concentrate on matters that move you closer to your goals. You can resist taking on a task simply because ‘it’s there’; you can resist doing something purely out of habit; you can resist taking on a task just because someone asks you to do it. You can resist because you can recognise activities that don’t add any value, that don’t move you any closer to your goals.

Then you can try to work on at least one value-adding activity in each facet of your life every day. When demands on your time crop up, you can evaluate them based on your values and goals and choose to do those that move you one step closer to a goal. You can delegate other matters or put them on your calendar to do when it suits you best. You’re in charge.

Break down value-adding activities into smaller, more do-able chunks when you need to. You may not become the perfect parent or an admired manager overnight, but you can do something that moves you towards those goals every day. With consistency comes progress.

That’s how to keep on the move and keep moving in the right direction. That’s how not to be busy, busy, busy but meandering through life with no real purpose.

Productivity tips

A recent article in Inc featured the top ‘productivity hacks’ of 13 CEOs and Founders. Here are the tips that I liked best:

Block out one day or two half days when you work on your high-priority items and disable your email, phone and computer network connections.

Follow David Allen’s ‘two-minute rule’: When a new task comes in and you can knock it off in less than two minutes, do so.

Implement ‘No Meeting Wednesdays’ throughout your team.

Make the best use of your desk time. If you’re out and about a lot, ‘out’ is when to check your emails and catch up on reading and phone calls. Switch your phone off when your at your desk and get on with other work.

Move all your Facebook friends to acquaintances. You’ll still get updates, but only the most important ones. This one action could make you 5 to 10 times more productive.

Protect your ‘golden hours’. Work out when you do your best work, treat that time as sacrosanct, and work on your most important and difficult tasks and projects then.

Start your day by doing your least favourite task on your To Do list.

Try to work 2 – 3 hours straight before checking emails if your job allows.

Work with your ultradian rhythms, your body’s natural cycles of 90 to 120 minutes. That’s when your body gives you a clue that you need to rest or change your physical or mental activity. If you don’t, you’re likely to feel tired and stressed.

Discussion questions

Which of these to you fancy trying out?