I share a tool that I have used to become mindful of my daily activities.
This video is from the IESE EMBA Intensive week and I share an exercise that I have been doing for the last few months – that has shown me that “feeling in a rush” is one of the big detractors of my quality of life.
The graph below gives one particular view of the level of productivity per hour for the world’s countries. Mexico works lots of hours with little output, whilst Luxembourg work little hours with very high productivity.
The horizontal axis represents annual hours worked and the vertical axis represents annual GDP per capita in U.S. dollars.
Shades of blue represented relatively high worker productivity while shades of red represent relatively lower worker productivity. Worker productivity is calculated by dividing annual GDP per capita by annual hours worked, which yields productivity per hour worked.
My first comment would be that there is a bit of a flaw in how this graph is put together. Productivity is divided by hours worked, so there is going to be a mathematical effect that showing higher productivity where cultures encourage people to get out of the office quickly. The graph is still interesting 😉
First understand the do-or-die importance of focus.
“If you don’t learn to focus, you will have a shallow and unrewarding life without any meaningful achievements.” Derek Sivers
That is worth repeating.
“A shallow and unrewarding life.”
You Need to Learn to Focus
So make it a priority.
Yes it’s hard. The world is designed to distract you. Facebook is a research laboratory focussed on human distraction. They invest billions and are excellent at their work. When facebook slip up, hard on their tails come Apple, apps, youtube, caffeine, bored friends, problematic neighbours and general office bullshit.
Apps are designed to be as addictive as possible.
Assume you are dealing with crack cocaine. If you can see it, you will use it. If you can hear it, you will use it. Willpower is not going to get you through this.
There are many reasons why we delay work. I think the most insidious is that I have a belief that the person I will be in future will be better than the person who I am today. I have a consistent inner belief that I will be smarter, better, faster in the future. The work that is hard today will somehow become easier for the better future me. But, what if’s not? I will only be better in future if I do the hard work of pushing through distractions today.
Who is Good at Focus?
I have spent a lot of time interviewing high performance athletes. My goal was to understand their motivations, how they train, how they prepare mentally, and how they face anxiety. These successful athletes have an ability to focus on the one next step and, in the words of Nike, Just do it!
Josef Ajram, one of Spain’s top endurance athletes, tells himself “I will run another 15 minutes. Come on. Anyone can run another 15 minutes.” In Josef Ajram’s words, he has completed the Marathon de Sables – 243km across the Sahara desert in 6 days – by only ever allowing himself to think about the next 15 minutes.
How to Learn Focus?
Use The Pomodoro* Method.
Here are my simplified instructions for following the Pomodoro method.
Pick a specific project you would like to work on. For example “Write a blog post on focus”.
Set a timer for 20 minutes
Work only on this project until the timer stops. Stop completely no matter where you are when you hear the timer. Mid sentence is excellent (it makes it easier to re-start this work later).
Count how many timers you can complete in a day. I bet you will not complete one single complete timer the first day you begin this habit. I didn’t.
*Any interruption*, you must reset the timer to 20 minutes.
If you need a drink of water, go get the water, then reset the timer.
If you need the bathroom, go, then reset the timer.
If you must check wikipedia to find out a fact, check wikipedia, then reset the timer. (better… resist the need to check facts now, and use a future timer to work on the project “research focus and collect sources”)
If you must respond to a phone alert, respond, reset the timer.
I think you get the idea. Only by working on 1, and only 1 project for the full 20 minutes = you get to count it as 1 timer.
* You can find the original Pomodoro Method described here: Pomodoro Method.
Do you plan your days, or do your days run as a reaction to what pops up? In Washington DC, one of our EO leaders at the EO Leadership Academy was Christoph Magnussen – here in this he shares a tip we learnt about how to take control of your day.
This is a lesson that was shared with the group by Warren Rustand. Warren Rustand was a White House scholar back in the 1970s and spent 4 years as the appointments secretary to President Gerald Ford. This meant that for 4 years, he controlled how President Ford spent his time.
Here’s another smidgin of wisdom from Entrepreneurs’ Organisation Leadership Academy 2016. In this video, Rich Mulholland, an entrepreneur from South Africa shares his reflections on two key moments during the leadership academy: A re-enactment of the Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” speech, and a session with Warren Rustand speaking about his time as Appointments Secretary to President Gerald Ford.
Rich’s message: Take control of your time.
I love Rich’s idea about protecting your time in the short term: If someone asks him for a meeting, he says “If you want to meet today or tomorrow, I can give you 15 minutes; if you want to meet next week, I can give you 30 minutes… if you can wait 2 weeks, I can give you an hour” – Most people say “I’ll take 15 minutes” and he can hold them to it when the clock ticks to 15 because they chose 15.
I have learned 3 things about getting good work done:
There is no magic app: My lack of productivity was never down to a missing app, or not implementing Dave Allen’s GTD system correctly, or not having the right colour pens and post-it notes. I have everything I need to be productive with a keyboard and a text editor (I write).
Willpower is weak: I have good willpower days (few) and bad willpower days (many). Willpower depends on a good nights sleep, an absence of urgent messes to deal with, nobody letting me down and the Irish rugby team delivering a stunning performance. These days are rare, and the likely self-flagellation and frustration from feeling like I am an especially lazy human being are very painful. Willpower doesn’t work over the long term.
Triggers matter: Instead of storing my good intentions inside my head, I write them down and put them around me. Instead of waiting for motivation, I have a list of people to call who will leave me inspired after 5 minutes of conversation. Instead of rethinking every day why I do this, I have a 1 page description of why my work matters. I write blog posts when I see my blog window open. I write in my notebook when I see it with a pen next to it on my desk.
I wrote a long series of posts on Productivity back in early 2014, with a tongue-in-cheek inspiration from my favourite childhood movie. Here’s the full list of posts.
I think email is a hugely useful tool, and also a massive black hole that can suck up my time and energy. I haven’t tried to manage email for the last few years on the view that almost nothing of great value ever arrives or is achieved purely through email. Anything important for me is achieved by getting face to face with the key person.
I have found a simple email idea that is working for me. It is not complex – which was often the failure of the “Getting Things Done” type systems for me. I think if I already had the systematic disciplines that you need to follow the process, then I wouldn’t need the getting things done system anyway. I am not organised. I never have been. It takes enormous effort on my part to keep things tidy.
Ari Miesel shared this one simple idea for email management that I have been using successfully now for 2 weeks.
The Optional Folder
I have 1 new folder – called the “Optional” folder. I have some rules that automatically move new email to this folder if they contain anything similar to the word “unsubscribe”.
Here are the actual rules that my Apple Mail program uses to move email into the optional folder:
Basically anything that has the word “unsubscribe” anywhere in the email is probably a newsletter, an offer or something that is not urgent. In my own case I have various versions of unsubscribe in spanish and english and have been tweaking these rules so that today the only emails that remain in my inbox are ones that are sent to me from a specific individual. It allows me to focus on the emails that do really need my attention.
I often do a scan through the optional folder, but with an open, curious mind that is not stressed by the thought that an email might be important and require my full attention.
First, you may ask, what is “Strategic Unavailability” anyway?
What is Strategic Unavailability?
If you say “yes” to every request for your time, money or attention you will have none for the areas that are your own personal priority. If you want to achieve success, you must retain most of your resources and dedicate them to one to three areas of your choosing. Thus, you must learn to say “No”.
Saying “No” is hard. It also has several negative consequences in polite society.
Far better than the use of the word “No” is the use of a series of tactics that come under the general concept “Strategic Unavailability”.
At the very simplest, the idea is to avoid being there when someone might make a request that will take away your time, money or attention. The key is to retain “plausible deniability” during your use of the tactic. Some tactics require greater acting capacity than others. Beginners would be best avoiding these high acting requirement tactics.
The aim is to keep time for the important 1, 2 or 3 priorities that you have decided for yourself in your profession. It is a total waste if you use the freed-up time to watch CSI Las Vegas or re-runs of Downton Abbey.
Some simple ideas for achieving “strategic unavailability”
Go to the toilet when you know someone is approaching your desk
Work from coffee shops, other people’s offices or meeting rooms during dangerous periods
Return phone calls when you can see that the person is away from their desk (go to voicemail)
Return phone calls after work hours
Delay email responses until tomorrow morning (you can write them today, but don’t let them leave your outbox until tomorrow morning)
Receive an important phone call just as a meeting is reaching the moment where actions will be assigned to people (either phone a friend style, or develop your acting abilities)
Use an old iPhone that regularly runs out of battery (this is a highly plausible tactic, mine is down to about 2 hours of battery)
Always ensure that you are involved in at least 3 projects, and demonstrate massive productivity in the first week of exposure to any new manager or colleague.
“Forget” to switch off the direct to voicemail setting on your phone
Tell your colleagues/team that you have an open-door for them – but that you request that they batch their problems into groups of 10… they can’t interrupt you unless they have accumulated 10 specific issues that they cannot address without your input (usually #1 gets resolved before they get to #5…)
Regularly ask “what could you do to move this forward that does not require anybody’s approval?”
Work with headphones in (whether you are listening to music or not, this also works on airplanes when your neighbour aims to talk for 14 hours)
Keep a charity box on your desk and ask for donations whenever anybody approaches (if you have kids, then ask visitors to your desk to sponsor your kid in a race or something). Bonus edition is to have stickers so that when one person donates, you give them a sticker and then they let others know to avoid your desk unless you wish to donate.
Cultivate a freakish interest in Star Wars, or World Wrestling Foundation, or ancient Greek philosophy, or NLP, or furniture upholstery and engage all visitors in a deep discussion about the merits of your hobby. Freaky hobbies with a plausible connection to your work are ideal.
When asked if you are available to meet, say “yes, I am free this Friday at 6:00am” – puts off all but the most keen time thieves. You will very rarely have to do it.
Bring a regional speciality food to work – I recommend any Icelanders to use “rotting shark meat in vinegar” – and request that anyone who comes to your desk try it.
Have a large audio recorder device and make a big show of switching it on when anyone comes to interrupt you – tell them that you are on a personal efficiency drive and are making a detailed study of all your interactions and all requests
Cultivate a mysterious illness with unclear symptoms
Remove all other chairs from your office (this made a massive improvement on my meeting time when I was running an airline); another variant is really uncomfortable chairs (especially very low seats)
Eat a rich curry or garlic dish for lunch in your office
Keep saying “that would make a great tweet!” and write down some banal saying from the other person
Advanced Strategic Unavailability
I need your help. What else works for you?
PS You better be very good at establishing a great reputation before you engage seriously in these tactics. If you are not viewed as a strong performer, if you are not delivering measurable results and if you are not gaining good exposure to senior influencers – fix that first (check out The PIE Model). These tactics only work if you are perceived as an “A” player…