Monday, October 28, 2013

8 Time Management Tips that Boost Productivity

I'm not going to talk about the basics of Time Management here.  We're not talking about creating to-do
lists, or filing, or prioritizing.  You should know that stuff by now or have access to numerous resources to help you understand the fundamentals.  What I do want to share with you are eight great insights into Time and your use of it, all aimed specifically at helping you be more productive.

We all have too much on our plates, and we all struggle with finding ways to get more done in our day. Although that tends to be a given, how we approach all of those tasks and how we manage them is not. Over my years of coaching and working with Managers and Executives from a variety of industries and in a variety of roles, I have had the opportunity to observe and learn from many of the best.  The list that follows are my distillation of their lesser known but absolutely key successful 'Time Management' habits.  I hope they help you to think of and look at time and productivity a little differently.

  1. There is no such thing as Time Management. This term is a misnomer preventing you from understanding that, in order to use your time effectively, you actually need to develop your skills in managing people, managing systems, managing technology, and managing you.  The better you are at managing these elements, the better use you will make of your time.
  2. All of your media has an off switch.  Use it.  Even shutting off from everything for one hour of completely uninterrupted time per day can give you a huge boost to your productivity.  
  3. Schedule time for interruptions.  Think of this as the equivalent of a professor's Office Hours.  The more you are able to create a set routine as to 'when' these times are, the more you, in essence, train others around you to respect them.  Conversely, use a Do Not Disturb sign for those times in which you absolutely will not welcome interruptions.  Fair warning to others around you!
  4. Know your energy cycles and schedule to them.  Plan to face your most difficult or challenging tasks during your Peaks, not when your energy and focus are crashing.  We all have our own unique rhythms.  Know when you are at your productive peak each day and use that time strategically.
  5. Timebox your activities.  This means that you assign a time limit to your activities.  Rather than going into a task with the thought that you will stick with it until it's done, assign an end time to it.  Typically you will find that it is easier to remain focused and you are able to get more done than if all tasks are left open-ended.  Urgency helps to drive focus.  
  6. Turn key tasks into habits. The more that you create automatic systems for your mind to latch onto, the faster you are able to get it in gear and slip into work mode.  I typically write better in the mornings.  When I have office days then, I have a set routine I follow when I first hit my desk that, essentially, tells my brain that it's writing time.  This allows me to slip into the mental space I need in order to write what needs to be written.  Without it, I flounder.  Create the habits you need to get your key tasks flowing faster and more effortlessly.
  7. Chunk and Batch.  Take large tasks and chunk them into smaller activities.  This creates manageable chunks of tasks that are easier to schedule and move through.  Batch similar chunks of activities together to take advantage of your brain grooves.  Different tasks require different types of thinking. Batching similar items together allows you to move through them more quickly because your brain is already in that mental groove.  Switching from one groove to another has a start-up time that you eliminate if you allow your brain to stay in a particular groove.   
  8. Take breaks.  I am a firm believer in the need to take regular, short breaks in order to refresh, recharge and refocus.  No muscle can operate at maximum capacity, without recovery periods, without crashing.  Your brain is no different.  Push it full out, then allow it a little recovery time, then push it again.  Adding in the breaks will make you more productive during the moments of focus, allowing you to get further with breaks than you ever did without.  
Try a couple of these ideas out for size.  In the end, it is really not about managing your time so much as it is about managing your productivity.  Try a couple of the ideas above out and let us know how they worked for you and feel free to also share a couple of your best productivity and time management ideas.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The True Cost of... Sunk Costs

The term Sunk Costs refers to any investment you have made, whether time, money, or effort, that has already been paid and cannot be recovered.  You have sunk that cost into the activity or event and it's gone forever.

Technically, we should be done with this cost and not continue to be influenced by it but, in actuality, this isn't what happens; largely due to the fact that we are hard-wired to feel loss more strongly than gain. Because sunk-costs represent a loss to us, it is difficult for us to separate ourselves from them.  Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, has this to say about our genetic predisposition to focus on loss...
Organisms that placed more urgency on avoiding threats than they did on maximizing opportunities were more likely to pass on their genes.  So over time, the prospect of losses has become a more powerful motivator on your behavior than the promise of gains.
I was thinking about this concept last night as I recalled a conversation that took place during a Career Planning session I was facilitating that day.  In essence, one of the participants commented that they felt 'trapped' in their existing career because they had spent the past number of years in their current role and, despite the fact they didn't think this was their 'true' dream career, couldn't just walk away and 'start over'. This is the sunk-cost fallacy at work.  This individual would like to consider switching their career but felt that they already had too much invested in their current stream to change.  Rather than shifting to something they would likely enjoy more, they didn't want to 'lose' the investment they had already made.

The biggest impact to us of the fallacy is, of course, that it prevents us from making choices that would serve us best in the future, rather than those negating the feeling of losses from past actions.  The challenge for us is that this fallacy is operating upon us unconsciously, we don't even know that it is creating false logic streams in our decision-making.  Consider...  have you ever gone to the movies only to realize, very early on, that the movie is terrible?  And yet, how often do people get up and leave?  Most stay and watch the movie, complaining bitterly afterward about the wasted money and time.  However, leaving early would have meant they could have mitigated their losses by not investing any more of their time.  Because the ticket was already purchased though, we remain to 'get our money's worth'.  Staying cost us more, but we only fixate on the cost of walking away.

What have you perhaps been holding onto too long simply because of the sunk-costs you have incurred?
  • a relationship that is no longer serving you
  • a career choice that no longer 'fits'
  • a business idea that doesn't work
  • a process or system that doesn't do what it should
  • an advisor or mentor that has run their course
  • an investment that is never going to turn around
The only way to avoid the hidden impact of perceived sunk-costs upon our current decisions is to consciously and openly recognise what they are.  Remind yourself that there is no getting these costs back, they are gone, but that you need not continue to lock your future choices and direction to the decisions of the past.  You have to ensure that you build a bright enough picture of the potential of the future that you will be able to override the pain that the loss represents.  We have to begin working on our rewiring to make future gains so much more appealing.  

Monday, October 14, 2013

Focusing and Single-Tasking

Despite the much lauded concept of 'multi-tasking', we truly don't get anything done without the ability to focus.  The greater our ability to minimize the distractions surrounding us, and concentrate our thoughts and efforts on the task at hand, the more productive we will be.  Unfortunately, today's workplace seems bent on creating more distractions than ever before and in rewarding people for responding to them.  However,  our long term success actually relies upon our ability to ignore those distractions, hone in on one thing... and get it done!  Results, in the long run, are what are going to take us from here, to there.

Most of us spend our days on sensory overload.  Our mind actively works on shutting down much of the sensory information we receive in an effort to help us to direct our attention to our more important needs. Consider the feel of the chair you're sitting on, the brush of your clothing on your skin, the weight of your glasses on your nose, the feel of the pen in your hand or the weight of your coffee cup.  These are all seemingly small sensations, but are those that we do not consciously register until or unless we formally direct our attention to them.  Our brain is constantly at work minimizing these distractions so that we can fully focus elsewhere.  The more distractions that exist around us, the more difficult a task this becomes until our brains become overwhelmed and far less effective in keeping those distractions from, well, distracting us!
Concentrate all your thoughts on the task at hand.   - Alexander Graham Bell
I remember when I was a child, the great fun we had playing with a magnifying glass.  Yes, this was before iPads and electronic devices took over.  A magnifying glass, the sun and a piece of wood and you were good to go for hours!  Harnessing the power of the sun and directing it to one focused beam of light created great power.  This is the power of learning to harness the mental ability of your brain and directing it in a single-minded fashion at a task.  It stands to reason then that the more effective we are at managing distractions, the more productive we will find ourselves to be.  Here are a couple of tips to help you get more from your day...
  • Shift your mindset from multi-tasking to single-tasking.  When we think that the goal is to be better at multi-tasking we are inadvertently giving ourselves permission to jump from task to task, thought to thought.  Distractions then seem to be a built-in part of this equation.  If our intent is on single-tasking instead, we do not welcome interruptions and are more consciously aware of the desire to avoid them.Our aim is to work optimally, which requires us to work in unbroken chunks of time.  You may choose to schedule your chunks in small 10 or 15 minutes segments, or in larger 60 minute ones, depending upon your environment, tasks and needs, but start chunking your time to focus on one thing at a time and see how much further it takes you.
  • Cultivate your mindfulness.  You want to be more aware of where your attention should be, and to gently nudge it back if and when you drift or begin getting pulled in another direction.  You need to retrain your brain to recognise that you actually want to remain focused and not be distracted!  Much of the way we live, allowing every electronic ping to take us off course, has told our brain that we welcome such diversion, which is why you are on hyper alert and can't help reaching for the device every time it makes a cough, burp or sputter!
  • Deliberately minimize distractions.  Don't make your brain have to do all of the work to shut distractions out and down.  Actively work to minimize some.  First of all, set your devices so they do not 'ping' you every time someone sends you an email or text.  If you know that you need an hour of uninterrupted time to focus on a project, put a sign up on your office door asking not to be disturbed, book yourself a meeting room away from others to help you concentrate or set up a red light/green light system.  I have a client who introduced this within their office to help people develop their focus.  All employees were given two flip cards, one green, one red, and were instructed when to use each.  In general, green meant they weren't working on anything critical and could be interrupted if needed, while the red card (which was used judiciously) indicated they were in deep-focus time and should not be disturbed.  A novel idea! 
Focus can be developed and strengthened, but it first needs to be recognised as a desired skill.  Our distractions are increasing at an alarming rate, necessitating the development of our ability to block out the extraneous messages.  Developing and strengthening your ability to focus is likely going to prove to be a decisive factor in your continued success.

For more reading on the concept of Focus and how to cultivate it...

Monday, October 7, 2013

Time Famine: the New Workplace Reality

We've all felt the starvation pangs of too little time, and it seems to be getting worse.  We are adding more
and more each day to our to-do lists but we are not gifted with any more time within which to accomplish them.  The Boston Globe called Time Famine the New American Epidemic.  We are all starved for more of this precious resource we call time.

In order to combat this, many of us focus our efforts on becoming more productive.  The thought being that if we learn to do more in less time we will have time 'left over' to devote to other things.  The thinking is sound but the problem is that there is always 'more' on the list to do.  We may get more done within our day, than do others, but we still feel starved for more time within which to get yet 'more' done.

Clearly there is an adjustment that needs to be made to the way that we are approaching the concept of time itself.  We all get 24 hours a day.  This is a finite figure and one which we are unable to impact.  What then needs to happen for us to become more Time Affluent?  We can't hoard our time away, earning interest on the unused portions, so we need to become more discretionary in its use.

If we truly begin to view our time as the precious resource it is, then we begin to become a little more conscious of the need to dole it out more cautiously.  The following are some of my key tips for beginning to manage your use of time differently and, hopefully, better...

  1. Assess the people in your life.  This may not be a typical topic in 'time management' texts but people tend to be the biggest drain of and on our time.  If we view our time as the limited resource that it is, then you need to become more conscious of where you want to spend yours.  Take a look at the people in your life and rate them either a plus, minus or zero, according to the positive value that they bring and add to your life.  This gives you an idea of where your time is netting you a return. Reallocate your time accordingly.  
  2. Do 'IT' each day.  We all have seemingly endless to-do lists.  We start each day knowing there is no possibility of completing everything.  However, it is never truly about crossing the most off of our list, but rather about crossing the right things off the list.  Don't mistake completing quantity as synonymous with quality.  Start your day by highlighting the one thing on your list that adds you the most value, that moves you ahead, that makes a difference to you... and do 'IT".  Do 'IT' first.  Don't compromise on this element for it's the one that does the most for you.  There will be no shortage of people clamouring for your time and attention over the course of the day, but doing 'IT' each day (whatever it happens to be!) will ensure that you spend time every day devoted to moving you forward, to making a difference to your life. 
  3. Stop Waiting.  We are conditioned to stand in lines, waiting patiently for other people's time.  We do it in grocery stores, in banks, at the doctor's office, on the phone waiting for the 'next' customer service rep to become available. This represents down time for you.  Your time is as valuable as theirs so ensure that you plan for these delays.  Save tasks on your to-do lists for these moments.  Anticipate and plan the wait into your day so you aren't frustrated by it but grateful for it.
  4. Their Crisis vs. Yours.  Don't allow a crisis on someone else's part to become a crisis on yours.  Know your schedule, know your needs and know where the person fits on your list from Point One above.  Just because someone is mis-managing their time/day/life doesn't mean that they automatically have the right to manage yours.  I understand that they want your help, they may even be at a point where they truly need it, but it isn't an automatic 'thing'.  Be judicious with your 'yeses'.  They are not a given nor are they an absolute.  Your day, your time, your schedule.  If tomorrow is better for you... say so and, if never is better, say that too.  Other people's mismanagement does not need to become your problem or issue... unless you let it.   
  5. Book 45 minute meetings.  Everyone seems to schedule their meetings in 60 minute intervals.  Even if they begin and end on time it will become impossible to remain on schedule.  Additionally, it does not leave you time to mentally shift gears in between, to 'travel' from one meeting room to the next, to handle that 'one' issue that's pressing.  There is nothing you accomplish in 60 minutes that can't be done in 45.  
  6. Take a Break.  You're not going to get everything done if you don't take a break, but you will likely get more done if you do!  Taking a break (go for a walk, go work out) helps to recharge your batteries, giving you more energy to apply to your tasks when you return.  Also, let's face it, inspiration rarely strikes anyone at their desk!  Getting out and moving will help to light that spark of creativity needed for the problem you left behind.  Plus... you need to build in time for you, keeping you happy and healthy.  Sitting at your desk all day, every day robs you of your health, focus and energy.  Build in 'you' time each day, during the day to replenish, restore and revitalize your body, mind and spirit.