Posted in Coaching, Strategy, Techniques

Maintaining Focus

Maintaining focus on the work at hand is one of the most critical keys to being productive on a daily basis. Even as someone with a daily focus on productivity improvement both professionally and personally, it is impossible to not have times when grand plans go off the rails.  In most cases you expect to learn from those mistakes, but in some cases the mistakes just seem to come back again and again.  I’m willing to admit to the most common recurring mistake I run into in my systems…a lack of focus. 

What should I be doing now? 

Executing the right things at the right times in the right ways is a great approach to being productive when it’s applied consistently. Where things go off the rails is when there are too many things in motion and you fail to focus on the work at hand. Most everyone has multiple things going on at one time. Balancing the work while still maintaining forward momentum can be an effort even greater than the work itself. 

Keeping everything on track 

Let’s take a common situation for me.  I’ll need to write an article, update newsletter content, think yet again (and unsuccessfully) plan a new podcast episode, all while giving priority to billable work for my clients. While I’m on billable work it’s not difficult to focus since there’s an inherent incentive in getting those tasks done. It’s the other work that struggles from a lack of focus. Balancing writing, podcasting, promoting, and general administration fragments focus and results in some, but not nearly enough, getting done. 

How to battle a lack of focus 

There are a number of techniques you can use to encourage focus. The Pomodoro technique of time sprints help some people (not so much me but I’ve seen it work for others.) Checklists, Kanban task boards, and workflows all can help. I’ve found one thing that works for me on a fairly consistent basis. When I can feel my focus drifting I ask, “What should I be doing that creates the greatest long term value for me?” This doesn’t preclude the “necessary evil” tasks. The purpose is to help get back to being productive right away rather than spending time completely resetting. 

Productive focus is a method not an objective

Striving to develop a productive level of focus is not an objective in of itself but rather a way to improve the execution of tasks and plans by staying on target and moving in the right direction.  Make sure when you achieve focus you’ve already identified the right things on which to focus.

 

How do you maintain focus on your work. Any tips you can share? Tell me about them in the comments. 

Posted in Coaching

Holiday Shopping in the Age of Outrage

Are you being naughty or nice?

At some point in our recent history it became acceptable to take whatever possible perceived slight and propel it to a public tirade against all things we don’t agree with.  Whether it’s red coffee cups or Black Thursday shopping the holidays are a perfect target for this false fury on the internet.  Any slight, real or perceived, is now the catalyst for a tweet storm or Yelp review with all the civility of an Archie Bunker diatribe. Why do we allow ourselves to fall into this mode of thinking and what can we do about it?

Salespeople are not out to ruin your holiday.

In the vast majority of cases, salespeople are trying to do their best to help you while making it through the crush of harried, rude customers who live by the mantra, “The Customer is Always Right.” (Personally I think whomever came up with that slogan never actually worked with customers, but that’s just me.) Try imagining dealing with a hundred demanding, complaining, immature kindergartners in an 8-hour day and you start to get the idea what it can be like on the sales floor. Yes, I know there are sales people out there who want nothing to do with their jobs or the customers they are there to assist.  Those are the rare ones and should not be used as an excuse to mistreat or abuse anyone working with the public.

Would your grandmother approve of your behavior?

If you stand back and watch the way some people act during holiday shopping the only thing you can imagine is their grandparents would have been appalled. Failures in common courtesy, decorum, and behavior become passable because they might miss out on the last hoverboard on clearance. How difficult is it to take advantage of the holidays to act the way we should be acting all year long, and recognizing people for showing the common decency and behavior which should be the norm?

You will still be loved even without that “thing”.

For some reason we have gotten into the mindset of, if we fail to deliver on a holiday wish, we will no longer be loved by the recipient. Honestly if that is truly the case you were never loved in the first place. Do your best to give from your heart but don’t attach your happiness to the happiness of another.

“Your” holiday is not more important than “my” holiday.

There are multiple holidays and traditions observed during this time of year, all equally important to the people who observe them.  In none of those holidays is the mandate to diminish, criticize, attack, or downplay any other. (If you think “your” holiday does subscribe to that thinking, you need to do some reading and get educated.) Show respect for the observances of everyone.  You don’t have to prove yours is the best by diminishing another. Also, any time “your” holiday is not given top billing and the genuflection you feel it deserves, it is not an attack on the holiday or the religion.  That’s a self-important, arrogant view that has no place this time (or any time) of year.

Remember the “why”.

Remember why you celebrate your holidays.  Think about how you would explain their importance to a child.  Follow those words carefully even in crowds of bustling shoppers or at 4 a.m. in line on Black Friday. Make the greatest gifts you give this year be to the people you don’t know and may not ever see again. Carry the gifts you receive forward and know that the warmth and caring of the holidays doesn’t come with a receipt, a commercial, or a sales flyer.  It’s time to let your heart grow three sizes.


Some readers will recognize this post from the last two years but based on the current climate and state of our interactions with others I thought it would be worth a reminder. If we allow interactions with others to negatively impact our emotional well being our productivity suffers along with ourselves. Avoid adding more stress to an already stressful time of year by staying on task, being patient, and being productive.


Here are some related articles about productive shopping you may find of interest:

Creating a low effort shopping list with Trello

How Android Wear and Google Keep Saved My Day


What do you think about this topic?  Why not share? Come over to the community and let us hear your ideas. Comment here.

Posted in Coaching

Productivity lessons from a whiskey bottle

I spent last evening working on a whiskey bottling line for a local distillery as a volunteer. Not only did I want to support the establishment but I also wanted to experience that type of a working process and see what I could glean. Three things struck me as we hand filled, capped, and labeled 930 bottles in two hours. 

Little changes can have big impacts 

As the designated bottle capper, I quickly discovered the smallest adjustments to my part of the process could have significant impacts on my workflow and throughput. For example, moving the bottle caps from the box on the floor to the table next to me shortened the distance I had to cover and time I had to expend between bottles.

These kinds of adjustments aren’t perfect though as I soon discovered. The new location lent itself to caps being knocked to the floor causing a distraction with each occurrence. The overall change was positive, but additional adjustments had to be made. 

Don’t feel that you have to put the brakes on everything to make adjustments to your processes. Make evaluations on the fly when possible, determine possible impacts, test and trial when the opportunity is there, and be prepared to make adjustments if your hypothesis was incorrect.  

Mistakes aren’t the end of the world 

During the filling process issues arose that could have caused significant issues to the execution. One of the issues was one of the hoses used to blow air into the empty bottles to clear them of dust kept blowing off its fitting.

Not having secured the hose before bottling began was a mistake that needed correction. For our purposes replacing the hose was enough but if the job was bigger a more permanent fix would have been in order. What is more important is how the mistake was handled than how it occurred. 

Mistakes happen in processes. Unforeseen issue arise. It’s just the nature of the world. Rather than stopping all production and pointing fingers to assign blame, deal with the problem and get back to work.

There will always be time later for analysis, debate, and postmortems. The key for the productive professional is knowing when to stop and knowing when to keep going. 

Each step is a process itself 

In looking at each step in the bottling process (capping doesn’t take much thought so I had some idle mental cycles to put to use) I realized each wasn’t really step but rather a process in and of itself.  

 Watching the person across from me who was responsible to make sure each bottle contained the correct amount of whiskey I counted no less than 12 separate parts to her “step” in the process. If any of those were to go off the rails the entire worksheet would be interrupted.  

For example, late in the process we change to a new pallet of bottles which unbeknownst to anyone we’re slightly thicker than what we had used to that point. That minor change meant the measurements she was using were now off and needed to be calibrated again. Her process hadn’t changed, but it was no longer working correctly. 

Too often we see things as milestones in a line. Proper workstreams need to be viewed as links in a chain, with each link a circular repeating process. Viewed this way you can see how management can often be blind because of the big picture and miss the smaller processes that make all the difference. 

One bottle at a time 

Workstreams and the people executing them need to be understood not only at the high level but lower levels as well. Viewing everything as a finished pallet of bottles causes you to lose the connection to the success that one filled bottle can be. 


Posted in Coaching, Techniques

The most productive option on Facebook

Productivity and Facebook don’t go hand in hand and for good reason.  Facebook can be a rabbit hole of immeasurable depth drawing you further and further away from accomplishing things. How do you deal with this? What’s the secret to staying on track and concentrating on things that will help you be productive?

Unfollow

Now many people are hesitant to use the unfollow option in their news feeds because of FOMO (fear of missing out). I’m going to challenge that notion right now. Unfollow is NOT the same as unfriend. Unfollow is basically saying you don’t want to talk about that topic now. Doesn’t mean you’ll never want to do it in the future, you just don’t want to do it as much.

Think about it this way.  We all have friends or relatives we like to be around and interact with, but we also know there are certain topics to not bring up with them for fear of them going off on a tirade or devolving into the verbal battles of last Thanksgiving.  In person how do you deal with this?  You walk away.  Unfollow is the same principle.  It’s not a matter of telling someone to shut up but rather just turning your back on the conversation for your own mental well-being.  The other person can rant, rave, scream, yell, and advocate for the flat-earth theory of alien visitations all they’d like…just not to you.

Being productive on Facebook is less about ticking checkboxes and more about using your most valuable resource (time) to get what you want from the experience. Allowing others to hijack that resource for their own wants and needs devalues your time and empowers them. It’s your time, use it as you want, not as someone else has decided you should.

It’s not me, it’s you

I use the unfollow option liberally. My newsfeed is just that…mine. I don’t have the interest to spend my time reading content that does not positively contribute to my daily life, my family, or my overall well-being (including entertainment). I recommend you do the same. Control your information, manage your time, and be productive (and judicious) about the world as it comes to you.

Posted in Coaching, Strategy

Stop Trying to Remember Everything

During every day of our lives we’re bombarded with things to remember. People ask us to do things, get things, be places, and follow up on things. Most commonly based on our educational backgrounds, we’ve come to the conclusion that we need to remember everything.  

Things need to be stored in our heads for immediate recall at a moments’ notice and if we fail in this regard we’re failing as people.  We spend our time in school developing techniques to stuff information between our ears all the while creating greater stress and demands on ourselves. 

Being practical about the problem we should first look at history.  The written word originally evolved for, among other reasons, the purpose of capturing information for future generations.  The sharing of information from person to person through time is a critical aspect of writing and yet we seem to have forgotten that very lesson.

Writing can provide clarity, accuracy, and relevance to thoughts and ideas for ourselves and others. While that sounds great, it doesn’t explain what it has to do with remembering things. 

If you don’t have to remember something, don’t 

In a critical analysis of information you need to determine is that piece of information worth the effort to have it available for immediate recall? In the majority of instances I would say it is not. So if you don’t need to remember it, what do you do with it if you still need it?

This is where your trusted system comes into play.  Capture that piece of information in your system and then walk away.  It’s that simple.  If you’ve defined your trusted system in a way where you do truly trust it, that being you know then information will be retained and accessible when you need it, then not keeping that piece in your mental RAM should be just fine. 

Capture everything 

We spend mental cycles deciding what we should capture and what we shouldn’t.  The biggest culprits of this are: people with systems that are not capture focused and people who treasure their systems. Let’s take a closer look at both. 

Systems that are not designed to be capture friendly usually fall into one of three camps: location limited, method limited, organization limited.  Location limited systems require you to be in a specific place to do your capturing, such as at a computer.  

This was often the case when laptops and mobile devices were less ubiquitous but you will still find many instances of this today. Method limited systems force you to use their “best” method whether it’s plain text, structured forms, or some other requirement placed on your capture by the tool you are using.

Organization limited means the system imposes requirements of organizing the information such as through tagging or categorization prior to allowing the capture.  In any of these cases, the system creates friction on the process of capture and to reduce that friction you are likely to try and remember instead. 

Treasured systems are most common in the analog space rather than the digital one (since electrons are cheap.) It’s the paralysis you can see when someone who is a notebook and pen person gets a nice shiny new notebook. 

They often can hesitate to use the notebook because they, on some internal level, don’t feel what they are capturing is worth of the book in which they are performing the capture. People facing these situations typically receive the recommendation from me to acquire an inexpensive notebook for general capture and then later when processing transfer content to the “special” notebook (but that’s for another discussion.) 

 

Ways to do capture things 

To successfully free up your memory from “operating trivia” while still ensuring you have all your bases covered find a system where you can capture immediately, quickly, and efficiently. Don’t worry if you have to revisit the system to organize your thoughts.  Avoid the whole “touch once” mindset (that’s for advanced work anyway) and concentrate on redirecting things from your headspace to your system. 

 

Isn’t there a right way to do this? 

No. 

 

What do you mean, no? 

Just what I said.  No.  There is no one right way to do this.  Capture is an action that is personal.  Whatever way is going to get you to do it consistently and in a way you can rely on later is the right way for you.

Don’t fall prey to popular misconceptions or the latest “new hotness” in the productivity world.  Capture should be simple and smooth with minimal bells and whistles. 

 

How do I get started? 

That’s the easy part. Just start capturing and stop trying to remember everything.  Try writing things down, entering them into your smartphone, using index cards, pocket notebooks, audio recording apps, etc.  Play with things and pay attention to the methods of capture you keep coming back to.  Don’t be afraid to change if a method doesn’t scale for you.  The key is to keep stuff out of your head and in a place where you can get to it when you need it. 

Here’s the best part…when you capture things (especially writing them down) they’re easier to remember!

Posted in Coaching, Strategy

Batting Practice for Contractors

If you’re a contractor working in an environment where you aren’t 100% busy all the time, but still requires you to meet billable hour contractual requirements, I suggest you take some batting practice. Having been in these situations before I’ve seen how leveraging the work you are doing as an opportunity to refine and hone your skills can make all the difference in your personal satisfaction as well as your client satisfaction.
Years ago I was embedded as an on-site trainer for a large pharmaceutical company. The purpose of the engagement was to act as an on-demand resource: running training classes and individual sessions at the request of the company staff. In principle the concept was sound and interesting.  In execution, the client staff had rare need for my services due to the work they were doing. Literally I would spend weeks with no direct engagements with the staff.  It was time for batting practice.

Turn work into professional development

Since the amount of idle time was excessive I reassessed the value I was delivering to the client. When I came on-site the first day I, to quote Liam Neeson, “had a particular set of skills.” Since those skills weren’t being leveraged I decided to expand on the ones relevant to the client. One of their primary needs was around the Lotus application suite (told you it was years ago) so I started deep diving into the capabilities of the tools far beyond what the normal users would ask for.  Why? Because by taking “batting practice” I was able to not only grow and deepen my skill set, but I was able to remain engaged and enthused about the possibilities at the client.

Make sure you’re staying relevant

It’s important to make sure the “batting practice” is relevant to what the client needs and wants. To continue the analogy, if I’m a designated hitter for a baseball team and the manager finds me out shooting baskets rather than swinging a bat, there’s going to be questions.  However if the manager finds me trying different bats, working on my stance and swing, and reviewing game footage of opposing pitchers, then there’s no question I’m contributing to the long term goals of the club. For myself, I’m building my skills and value so if I do get traded, I’m worth more to the next team I’m on.

Your engagement is your responsibility more than others

Being in a situation where so long as you are fulfilling the base requirements of a contract you are termed “successful” remaining engaged can become a difficult challenge. You need to take personal ownership and remember no company or organization can force you to be engaged. No number of perks, no matter how great, can buy that level of mental commitment. You must be committed and engaged to yourself first. Once that stands on it’s own can you then focus your attention on your client and your company. Operating every day with the expectation the company will keep you engaged is setting yourself up for failure, because it’s a rare company indeed that doesn’t struggle mightily with employee engagement, much less contractors.

Work on developing your skills within the context of your contractual obligations, but do that for yourself first, client second. Swing that bat, but do it to become a better batter, not just because someone said you should be doing it to look like you’re contributing to the team.

Posted in Coaching, Strategy

Can you be productive in 40 hours?

Our modern work culture has trained us to think the only way we can be successful is by working extraordinary numbers of hours each week. People working their “hustle” (honestly I don’t care for that term) will all but brag about the 70, 80, 90 hours each week they put in. I have to wonder, are they being as productive as they can be, or are they compensating for poor productivity with increased hours.
Many people in the technology field work as contractors, obligated by said contract to a 40-hour billable period each week. However, as is often the case, they are limited to not “over-bill” a client if they need to work more hours.  How do you balance a hard limit of hours with milestones and deliverables set in conjunction with staff personnel who do not have that hard limit?

Learn how to estimate

One of the best tools in a consultant / contractor’s toolbox is the ability to estimate work accurately and consistently. Building this skill takes experience and effort but there are some hacks you can use to help this along. First, write down how long it takes you to do each task no matter how long or short.  What you’re building is a historical record for you to use for reference in estimating your workload and what can be done within a fixed amount of time.

Let’s say for example you’re working on a spreadsheet and one of the requirements is to create a Pivot Table and accompanying chart for analysis. When finished you found it took you about an hour to create the table and chart to a level of completion suitable for submission. That hour number becomes a reference measure for your future estimates. Now when asked to create three Pivot Tables and accompanying charts, you could comfortably respond it will take four hours.

Wait, your math is off

If you’re paying attention you’ll notice I added an extra hour to the estimate.  There’s three reasons for this. First, there is start and stop time to be included when transitioning from one objective to the next. Second, you need to provide a buffer to allow for unknown problems that will likely creep into your work. Third, any task longer than an hour is likely to get interrupted, so you need to allow for the loss and regaining of focus.

Things start to add up

Working from a fixed pool of 40 hours, you start to subtract from that number rather than adding up task estimates to get there. So at this point we’re at 36 hours after estimating our three table project. Factor in meetings (1.5 hours for a 1 hour meeting – including prep and recap), recurring administrative tasks, and known scheduled activities such as SCRUM sessions to get to a realistic number of hours you have available to work that week.

It’s important you keep those estimates recorded as the week progresses so you can be sure not only are you not overextending yourself, but that you’re also not overbilling your client AND you’re getting done the work you’ve committed to.

But I’m not restricted to 40 hours

If you’re in a position where there is an expectation you will keep working until the job is done regardless of the number of hours you have to put in (whether that comes from management or yourself is a different article) using the 40-hour measure can be just as useful. By tracking your time, refining your estimates, and projecting your workload you can balance your effort against your periods of peak productive flow.

How do I get started?

Begin by recording the time you’re spending on the work you’re doing. Keep notes and at the end of the week do some analysis around creating the building blocks for your estimating system. If you can get your time under control, you’ll be able to use it more effectively and treat it like the non-renewable resource it is.