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”

  1. Go to the toilet when you know someone is approaching your desk
  2. Work from coffee shops, other people’s offices or meeting rooms during dangerous periods
  3. Return phone calls when you can see that the person is away from their desk (go to voicemail)
  4. Return phone calls after work hours
  5. Delay email responses until tomorrow morning (you can write them today, but don’t let them leave your outbox until tomorrow morning)
  6. 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)
  7. 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)
  8. 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.
  9. “Forget” to switch off the direct to voicemail setting on your phone
  10. 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…)
  11. Regularly ask “what could you do to move this forward that does not require anybody’s approval?”
  12. 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)
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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
  18. Cultivate a mysterious illness with unclear symptoms
  19. 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)
  20. Eat a rich curry or garlic dish for lunch in your office
  21. 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.

Money.

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

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 11.48.47Our 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.

Read the 6 Item Checklist for Running Impressive Meetings

Richard Hamming’s 14 Lessons for Success (as a Scientist)

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 11.48.36Before 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…”

Read Richard Hamming’s 14 Lessons for Success (as a Scientist)

3 Reasons why Work Life Balance is a Stupid Ideal

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 11.48.11Balance 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.

Read 3 Reasons why Work Life Balance is a Stupid Ideal

Procrastination, Schmastination: 3 Power Tools to Get Things Done

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 11.47.57My 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?

Read Procrastination, Schmastination: 3 Power Tools to Get Things Done

Stop Doing Stuff that Doesn’t Serve

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

My own notebook right now
My own notebook right now

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:

  1. Do not answer phone calls from people you don’t know
  2. Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night
  3. Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time
  4. Do not let people ramble: “Small talk takes up big time.”
  5. Do not check email constantly
  6. Do not over-communicate with low profit, high maintenance customers
  7. Do not work more to fix being too busy
  8. Do not carry a cellphone or Crackberry 24/7
  9. Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should

Check out the original list by Tim here.

What’s on your “Do Less” list?  Any clear “Do More” ideas?

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

Photo Credit: Polifemus via Compfight cc
Heading along the old cow path, Photo Credit: Polifemus

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.

As I grow ever older, staying fit requires ever greater intention.  I sometimes wish to myself that it might be a little easier, but then quickly realise that this is my inner saboteur distracting me.

If you are going uphill then you are going towards success.  I so often want writing to become easier.  I live with the hope that if I really work at my fitness, at my writing: I will find that they become easier.  It does not work this way.  Eka told me that the better I get at something, the better my inner saboteur becomes.  I am wise enough to see through the excuses of 10 years ago, but now I have new, more sophisticated, more subtle, more dangerous excuses.

Photo Credit: DanieleCivello via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: DanieleCivello via Compfight cc

John Maxwell shares a story of a tree in a garden.  He says “if I take up my axe and swing at the tree, will I chop it down?”  Not in one blow, unless it is a very small tree.  In 5 blows? maybe?  If I go out every day and swing the axe at the tree, will the tree fall?  Yes.  When?  eventually.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow… but if I keep on chopping, the tree will fall.  It could be a Californian Sequoia, it could be a towering British Oak: if I keep on chopping, the tree will fall.  It doesn’t matter the quality of the blows, it doesn’t matter the strength in my arms: if I keep on chopping, the tree will fall.

If you want to be successful: do what you have to do to be successful.  Not what you want to do, not what you wish you could do, not what you feel like doing…  what you have to do.

What are the 5 things you have to do to be successful?  You don’t need a PhD to figure these out.

“If you are not growing, you are dying” Jim Rohn

If I don’t have a plan for growth, the natural is not to stay in good fit shape.  If you are not moving forward, it is likely that you are being left behind.

I do have a plan for growth.  I have a plan for health, a plan for writing, a plan for teaching.  However, in the last few weeks I have grown comfortable.  I have stopped doing what is hard and only done what is easy.  I have allowed my inner saboteur to move me off the uphill path.  I was hoping for some automation, some easing of the uphill journey.  My friend Florian says “only dead fish swim with the flow”.  To be alive, is to swim against the natural flow.

“The only thing automatic in life is death” John Maxwell

Life is simple.  We live for a short moment, and then we die.  It is easy to be hopeless in the face of this simple equation.  It is easy for me to tell myself that anything I do is meaningless.  It is easy for me to excuse myself from the hard work.  In the face of the equation of life, there is only one heroic response.

The heroic response to challenge: Defiance.

Defiance in the Face of Difficulty

I cannot control the external forces of my life.  I cannot control whether people read my writing or like my writing or learn from my writing.  I cannot control when I get ill.  I cannot control when those that I love suffer, get ill.

I can always control my reaction.  To react is to give up the heroic response.  To respond in a way that resonates with the best version of myself, to be defiant in the face of difficulty: this is the heroic response.

If you want to grow, you have to be intentional.  What’s your plan for growth? What do you do every day to ensure that you are growing?

Most people live their entire life and never plan to intentionally grow.

There are no secrets to success: You don’t have to do it all day.  You do have to do it every day.  The 20 mile march, daily progress.  I don’t get to brush my teeth 7 times on a Sunday to make up for not brushing Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday…

(PS You may have already guessed: the read audience for this post is myself, to make myself go for a run today)

Sometimes I want a lazy day.

Sometimes I don’t feel like producing good work.

I often blog about productivity, about removing purposeless-busy-ness from our lives; but sometimes I don’t car and I want to give the impression that I am really working hard.

Here are 10 golden rules for looking like you are working hard:

George Costanza’s 10 Commandments For ‘Working Hard’

  1. Never walk without a document in your hands. People with documents in their hands look like hardworking employees heading for important meetings. People with nothing in their hands look like they’re heading for the cafeteria. People with a newspaper in their hand look like they’re heading for the toilet. Above all, make sure you carry loads of stuff home with you at night, thus generating the false impression that you work longer hours than you do.
  2. Use computers to look busy.  Any time you use a computer, it looks like “work” to the casual observer. You can send and receive personal e-mail, chat, and generally have a blast without doing anything remotely related to work. These aren’t exactly the societal benefits that the proponents of the computer revolution would like to talk about but they’re not bad either. When you get caught by your boss — and you will get caught — your best defence is to claim you’re teaching yourself to use new software, thus saving valuable training dollars.
    George-costanza
    George Costanza, from Seinfeld
  3. Keep a messy desk.  Top management can get away with a clean desk. For the rest of us, it looks like we’re not working hard enough. Build huge piles of documents around your workspace. To the observer, last year’s work looks the same as today’s work; it’s volume that counts. Pile them high and wide. If you know somebody is coming to your cubicle, bury the document you’ll need halfway down in an existing stack and rummage for it when he/she arrives.
  4. Use voice mail.  Never answer your phone if you have voice mail. People don’t call you just because they want to give you something for nothing — they call because they want you to do work for them. That’s no way to live. Screen all your calls through voice mail. If somebody leaves a voice-mail message for you and it sounds like impending work, respond during lunch hour when you know they’re not there — it looks like you’re hardworking and conscientious even though you’re being a devious weasel.
  5. Look impatient & annoyed.  One should also always try to look impatient and annoyed to give your bosses the impression that you are always busy.
  6. Leave the office late.  Always leave the office late, especially when the boss is still around. You could read magazines and storybooks that you always wanted to read but have no time until late before leaving. Make sure you walk past the boss’ room on your way out. Send important e-mail at unearthly hours (e.g. 9:35 p.m., 7:05 a.m., etc.) and during public holidays.
  7. Use sighing for effect.  Sigh loudly when there are many people around, giving the impression that you are under extreme pressure.
  8. Opt for the stacking strategy.  It is not enough to pile lots of documents on the table. Put lots of books on the floor etc. (thick computer manuals are the best).
  9. Build your vocabulary.  Read up on some computer magazines and pick out all the jargon and new products. Use the phrases freely when in conversation with bosses. Remember; they don’t have to understand what you say, but you sure sound impressive.
  10. Don’t get caught.  MOST IMPORTANT: Don’t forward this page’s URL to your boss by mistake!

Source: http://www.jumbojoke.com/george_costanzas_10_commandments_for_working_hard.html

PS This might be a joke, but it is also a good checklist for identifying people around you who may be putting more effort into appearances of productivity than into real productivity (or yourself…)

 

I was prompted to write this post as I am finding the post-holiday return to discipline quite challenging.  I heard somewhere that it takes 30 days to build a habit, and 1 day to lose it.  Time to get the habits back again for 2013.

14 Ways to Get Things Done

  1. Start the day slowly – Ken Blanchard told me how here.
  2. Do in sprints – The Pomodoro technique is explained here. (Page 2, Self-Discipline)
  3. Say No More – Say “No” to most requests.  Often the best way to say “no” doesn’t use the word “no”. More on saying “no” here.
  4. Double up on Priorities (throw in the €50) – Life gives you little nudges, but you must choose the sacrifice.  More on chosen sacrifice.
  5. Create barriers (email, phone, social media) – Jim Collins keeps away from all digital devices before midday. More on Jim Collins 3 tools for productivity here.
  6. Remove Waste – Stop doing stuff that is no longer relevant.  Close the chapters.
  7. Read – You must out-learn the competition.
  8. Rest before you Need it – Ernest Hemmingway would always stop his writing mid-sentence to take a break.  When he returned, it was much easier to get started again.  Stop before you are finished.
  9. Take proper breaks – Walk away from the computer.  More on rest and sleep here.
  10. Use the right tools – Hammers work on nails, not on screws.
  11. Ask Questions – How to ask better questions here.
  12. Work with A Players – Your scarce resource is not time, it is energy.  You have limited energy.  Some people suck it, some people are neutral, and some help you find even more.  Florian Mueck helps me find more.  How to find A players?
  13. Use the gaps – Do your little admin tasks in the 5 minute gaps.  Productive people get the necessary crap done in the 10 minutes waiting before a meeting, in the 4 minutes waiting for a friend to arrive for lunch.  If you call your bank in the gap, the 2 hours of time for productive creation can really be spent on creation.
  14. Ship when done, not when perfect – This is my Achilles Heel.  I don’t know how to solve it.  Any ideas?  I will be most grateful.  My book project is often blocked by the search for perfection, not the acceptance of good enough.

What else am I missing?  What gets you into productive mode?  What signals help you see when you are becoming un-productive?