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…
I know plenty of financial advisors who would love to spend a few hours reviewing my investments, cash position, investment goals and helping me make a realistic plan.
I know how much I spent on food, travel, housing, school in the last month, year and if I did the sums I could calculate a rough lifetime spend.
You can always earn more money.
Organisations spend small fortunes developing capital expenditure budgets and operational budgets and auditing the cash of the business.
My time, in contrast, goes un-managed. Most organisations have no systematic procedure to eliminate time wasters. They place clear objectives for the use of every dollar, but no barriers on the expenditure of another hour.
My first girlfriend used to tell me that time is like money but with one major difference – at the end of every day, everything you have left unspent is taken away from you. Imagine if you started every day with €240 and you knew that at midnight, any left unspent will be taken away.
Imagine Managing Time Like Companies Budget Capital
Imagine if every month, instead of receiving a bank statement, I received a time-statement: a detailed breakdown of where my hours have been put, how many were invested and how many just dripped through the cracks.
Would it change how I spend my time? Would it reduce facebook and increase playing with my daughter? Would it reduce email and increase face-to-face meetings? How would the measurement change me?
I have been writing this month for the Lifehack blog. They have published 4 of my blog posts so far. It’s challenging and helpful to get pushed to improve my ability to explain my ideas, work with editors and pitch story ideas 😉
6 Item Checklist for Running Impressive Meetings
Our first board meeting was chaos. There was a paper agenda, but I failed to keep people focussed on the agreed discussions. Each board member would throw their own opinion in for every small point. We spent almost 4 hours sucked into petty administrative details. It was tiring. Over the next 2 years, I learnt how to run meetings that get volunteers engaged, proud, active and delivering big results. What works for volunteers also works for corporates, universities and professional associations.
Richard Hamming’s 14 Lessons for Success (as a Scientist)
Before we dive into Richard’s wisdom, let me give my 20,000 mile high summary: If you want to live a life that matters, it is necessary to do something outstanding, otherwise it will all be taken away from you. This talk is not a talk about living a happy life, nor a helpful life. Richard himself says: “I am really trying to get you to think about doing significant things…”
Balance is an ideal. It doesn’t exist. When we are walking, we aren’t in balance. We fall to the left, we fall to the right. When we are running, we aren’t in balance. We fall to the left, we fall to the right. When we are cycling, we aren’t in balance… I think I’ve labored the point.
All natural forward progress by humans comes from imbalance.
Procrastination, Schmastination: 3 Power Tools to Get Things Done
My entire life can be divided into 3 phases.
Blissful Avoidance; Lucky, and Avoiding Responsibility; and Realisation
I know what an unproductive day looks like. I can recognise the features of a zero day. What’s the opposite? What is a productive day? What’s in a ‘Get Things Done’ day?
168 hours in a week. 24 hours in a day. I haven’t done the math to work out how many in a year or a lifetime, but however large the number, it is still finite. It is limited. We get so much, and no more. This leaves you with a choice. My friend Verne Harnish is fond of saying “we can do anything we want, but not everything”. He is in great company:
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” Warren Buffett
“What you don’t do determines what you can do.” Tim Ferriss, author of the best-seller ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’
“Prioritization is as much about what we choose not to do as what we do.” Jonathan Becher, Chief Marketing Officer at SAP
Creating Your Not-To-Do List
You already have a to-do list (Come on, you are reading this blog… you must have a list somewhere in front of you?) It may not be enough. In my workshops I ask people to create a do more and do less page. Big sheet of paper, top of the left side write: “Do More” and top of the right side write: “Do Less”. What tends to go on “do less”? TV, facebook, attending meetings with no agenda. What tends to go on “do more”? Lots of great stuff. It is a powerful exercise.
Tim Ferriss argues that there are 9 habits we must eliminate to free up time for more important activities:
Do not answer phone calls from people you don’t know
Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night
Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time
Do not let people ramble: “Small talk takes up big time.”
Do not check email constantly
Do not over-communicate with low profit, high maintenance customers
Do not work more to fix being too busy
Do not carry a cellphone or Crackberry 24/7
Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should
Everyone wants to be Bruce Lee, but few want to put in the 10,000 (or more) hours of practice and preparation. It is only when the bar is held high that we can consistently put in the practice and push our skills to the highest levels.
What makes for an ‘A’ Player?
The simplest possible definition is “somebody you would enthusiastically re-hire”. Imagine you got to re-hire your team each morning. Who would be the first people chosen? These are your “A players”.
What attracts “A” Players? Two things – other “A” Players and a meaningful challenge.
How do you create a culture of “A” Players? There is only one path: Zero tolerance of mediocrity. At the end of this post I describe this leadership attitude.
Positive Attitude – Resilient; life gives us all blows… some keep moving, some get knocked down. A players keep moving.
Adaptable – Open to Change, Flexible; what was right yesterday may be wrong today, what worked well yesterday may be ineffective today.
Reliable – write things down, get things done, relentless follow through, do what needs to be done
Big Picture – they know where they and their team are going, they have a personal sense of why they are doing the work that they are doing; building skills not just for today, but for where they want to be tomorrow.
Connected and Influential – Plays well with others, listens actively, open to being influenced and capable of shaping the perspectives and attitudes of others.
Always Learning – reading books, attending seminars, open to culture
How to run your talent program like FC Barcelona
At a conference at IESE Business School in 2011, Geoff Smart spoke to the audience about how to source, select and attract top talent to your organization. He asked “has anyone ever hired someone who looked great on paper, only to find out weeks or months later that it was a terrible decision?” Many hands were raised in the air.
Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, says that the very first step of leaders who create massive success in their businesses is “get the right people on the bus”… and the corollary… get the wrong people off the bus.
There are 4 parts to hiring well.
Know clearly what you want the person to achieve. Go beyond vague descriptions of skills. eg. “Analytical Thought Process” develop further to “Distinguishes key facts from secondary factors; can follow a progressive thought process from idea to idea; makes sound observations.”
Go to where the best people are. Where are the best people? They are not looking at job adverts. They are not spending their weekend reading job websites. They are passionate about their current role. It is unlikely that those who are actively searching through non-personal channels are top performers. The top performers are still doing well in their current jobs. How to find the best people? There is only one way: Network. If you want talent: ask who the best people are, get to industry events, meet people at conferences. Watch people in action, know them through their activity, read their books, their tweets, their Quora profiles, their blogs.
Selecting the A players: focus on the past, not the future. Don’t ever ask “how would you solve the problem?”. Ask “tell me about a time when you solved a similar problem?” Everyone can tell you a great story about what they would do. The top performers are not smarter, don’t have better to-do list systems, better technology. The differentiator is that they have found the way to overcome procrastination. They actually do the things that they say they will do. Give them a present problem and ask them to solve it. See their creative thinking, not necessarily the solution. Look for performance, don’t ask for opinions.
Selling the opportunity, building the culture. Selling the opportunity to an A player does not mean “be their friend”; it means sell them on the personal growth, the professional growth the opportunity to impact the world on a massive scale. This is what great people want. Not more friends. They want to be pushed and demanded and be allowed to change the world for the better. Jonathan Davis says that culture is hard to build and easy to destroy. Jonathan turned down a hiring contract recently with a big company. He told the CEO “You cannot be client of ours. I’ll tell you why. Your VP of sales is a !@#$%^!. He won’t waste an opportunity to tell you how awesome he is. We can help you recruit a great employee, but he will leave.” It is the culture that you build that will really attract and keep the top talent. If you create a great culture, you don’t need to pay employees to bring people in… they will bring their ambitious, high performing friends in. The online shoe retailer Zappos pay $2000 for people to leave.
Finding, Recruiting and Retaining Talent is Hard Work
How do you do this without any effort? You don’t. Good talent doesn’t just happen because you are showing up. One of the hardest things in business life is removing a loyal but mediocre performer from your team. There may be bonds of friendship, there may be many good shared experiences in the past, feelings of connection. However, the continued presence of mediocrity in your team is a cancer that will eat away at your ability to achieve important goals. One way to reduce the pain of having to let go of mediocre performers is to get very good at only hiring star performers into your team.
Leadership sometimes means Letting People Go
My father once told me that the greatest service you can do for an unhappy, under performing employee is to let them go – it frees them to search and find a place where they can contribute and find greater meaning. They won’t thank you in the moment, but this is the service of a leader – it is not about giving – it is about serving; it is not about the easy answers, it is about the right answers.
Highly Demanding, with Love
How would you get Leo Messi to play for your football team? It would help if you had 3 of the top 5 footballers in the world already on the team. How do you attract the top talent to your team? Build a culture of high performance around you.
This starts with a zero tolerance of mediocrity.
A participant on my course last year began his speech “I have often wondered whether it is better as a parent to be permissive or authoritarian. Which is better? At a conference a few years ago, I had the opportunity to speak to one of the world guru’s on child development. I went up to him after his talk. I congratulated him. I asked him the question: ‘is it better for a parent to be permissive or authoritarian?’
The guru smiled and said ‘highly demanding with love’.”
It is the same as a leader – can you be highly demanding, with love. Expect the best from those around you and they rise to the challenge. Accept the worst, and they will coast in comfort.
When I worked at Accenture, we were often in the business of identifying the existing business processes and then analysing how we would enable these processes with technology. Sometimes it was putting a mobile phone purchase process onto Siebel CRM, sometimes it was putting insurance sales onto SAP ERP.
A senior partner used to say to me “we are not here to just pave the cow path”.
Don’t Pave the Cow Path
The cow path was the old way of doing things. Sometimes the old way was not a good way. Sometimes the old way was a terrible way.
The Green Book and the Blue Book
My father tells a story of when he was first working as a consultant back in the early 1970’s in a hospital in south west Ireland.
On his first day, he was required to sign in to enter the building. Strangely, he was asked to do this in a blue book, and also in a green book. He asked the girl behind the desk “why the two books?”.
She responded “there have always been two books.”
After a week of this double sign in, my father began to have a curiosity as to why these 2 books were both needed. He would ask managers, he would ask doctors, he would ask others who had worked there for years. Always, the same answer “there have always been two books”.
After months of work my father was coming to the end of his project at the hospital. As part of the final phase of the project, he was to meet with a retired doctor who had been around since the very beginning of the hospital.
At the end of the meeting with this eminent doctor, my father again asked his question “why the two books?”
The doctor laughed and said “Back in the war years, there was rationing of petrol. A lot of our staff were unable to easily get to and from work. The hospital bought bicycles for staff to use to get home quickly. The blue book is for signing bicycles in and out, the green book was the original attendance book. Somewhere along the way, the bicycles were no longer necessary and were sold… but we never were able to get rid of the blue book”.
I have seen so many blue book processes in companies. It is much, much harder to stop something that we are already doing than it is to start a new thing.
In each of our lives there are also many blue book processes. They may have served us well several years ago, but are just busy activity now. They are processes that do not serve.
In productivity, removing the blue book processes is more important than adding efficiency to the green book processes. Removing busy-ness. Stopping using the old cow path when we now have a six lane motorway.
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