Category Archives: Personal Productivity
I’ve taken a real shine to podcasts recently. Whilst walking or driving or at the gym, I’m plugged into my bluetooth wrap-around headphones doing two things at once. For most guys, multitasking is microwaving a pie whilst having a shower. Sometimes my phones goes and it automatically cuts the podcast and brings on the call, which is inevitably an offer of easy, high-fee work. I’ll accept the work, the caller will compliment me on the high-energy music in the background, the call ends, the phone brings back up the podcast and I go back to my workout. Such multitasking must surely be a shining example of productivity. (This happens to me all the time and isn’t a made-up example for this article in any way).
People talk about multi-tasking and being productive all the time. I’m not entirely sure everyone shares the same understanding of what it actually means. Technically, it’s a measure of the ratio of outputs to inputs in a production process. You know, a genuinely measurable thing you can track against a baseline and assess the effectiveness of changing variables. Probably my podcast at the gym example isn’t really about productivity, although my vertical leap has increased ten percent in the past three months and surely that’s a kind of productivity?
That ‘outputs to inputs’ stuff must just be about companies and countries though, right? Let us just fret about personal productivity. Let us all read about four hour work weeks, attempt four hour bodies and outsource our low value activities to some kids in Kazakhstan via fiverr.com. As a self-employed person, I do outsource much of my, for want of a better term, work. I have an accountant. I have a graphic designer. I buy their time and outputs as and when required. Those aren’t low value activities but they’re areas where my skill levels are amateurish on a good day with the wind behind me. Other tasks that are low value, I might assign to one of my low-skill non-Kazakhstani kids at low but not Fiverr.com-low rates. I probably shouldn’t be in charge of running a country but it seems to work for us. To be fair to Nahir my Fiverr guy, his work isn’t low skill. He is a skilled creative and I could never have drawn that cartoon myself of a desert scene made up of popsicles and cupcakes to go along as a background image with a comedy song I’d written about how I’m annoyed when people confuse the words ‘desert’ and ‘dessert’.
One technique worth considering, to the extent that you find it do-able, is performing different types of activities at different times of the day. I once met a professor of chronobiology (look it up) and she told me of circadian rhythms and such. People are different but the average person has two peak periods of alertness in a given day – around 8am to 10am and 6pm to 8pm. Our droopiest period of non-alertness is 1pm to 3pm. She argued that, if you can, you should schedule high value / high thinking activities in your peak alertness periods and your mindless, low-value tasks in your trough alertness periods.
Gloria Mark is one of the world’s leading experts on workplace interruptions. If I was to ask you what you thought were the primary causes of workplace interruptions, you might say things like phonecalls, emails, pop-in visitors or meetings. Mark did a videoed study of many workplaces where they’d had time management training and knew at a conscious level that they should be working on one task at a time until completion and that the tasks should be done in priority order according to agreed high-level goals. It’s fascinating to watch as the number one workplace interruption isn’t any of those you would’ve thought of. Our number one workplace interruptor is… ourselves. You watch the videos and people are working studiously on their high priority task, then, for no overtly obvious reason, they stop, shuffle sideays and do something else briefly, and finish by sliding back to that high priority task they’d just interrupted themselves from doing. And they’d do this repeatedly. Every time you interrupt a task and return to it, there is abundant opportunity for errors, duplications, ommission and so forth, nevermind the inefficiency.
One option to deal with the ill-disciplined, unproductive, troublemaker that is yourself is the pomodoro technique. When faced with any large task or series of tasks, break the work down into short, timed intervals that are spaced out by short breaks. This trains your brain to focus for short periods and helps you stay on top of deadlines. If you gradually increase the duration of the working periods, you can even train your brain to be more focused. The guy who invented the technique used a wind-up timer in the shape of a tomato and pomodoro is Italian for tomato.
Sorry, that last paragraph was a lot funnier in its original Kazakh language. It lost a bit in translation.
Technology has had an amazing impact on productivity over the years. For example, manufacturing has roared ahead in recent years, especially when you include the manufacturing of tweets.
Sarcasm aside, technology has enabled those with a view to being productive the tools for being so. Equally, technology enables those more into goofing off the tools for doing so. In my own efforts for a work-life balance, computers and networks have allowed me to pack so much more productivity into the hours where I’m capable and inclined to being so. And my goofing off efforts are off the charts. If there were charts for goofing off. Which there aren’t. Who’s going to make them?
There’s also that grey inbetween time where we’re doing stuff that’s not necessarily economically driven but could be worthwhile. Now technology allows us to measure this. Go to a store that sells smartphones and the like – one of the bigger outlets – and you’ll notice a whole aisle dedicated to a type of product that didn’t exist even five years ago. It probably could have but the people marketing the concept had to catch up with the technology. Broadly, they’re called ‘wearables’ and mostly they’re about fitness. The great grand children of the pedometers from the 1990s when all we thought we needed to know was whether we more or less than ten thousand steps a day. They connect via bluetooth to your smartphone, or via wireless broadband to a cloud and monitor and track your pulse, blood pressure and, possibly in the not too distant future, your attitude.
These are consumer items for personal use for customers who care about improving their health and fitness but it cannot be to far before employer apps can be developed. Already GPS apps tied to vehicles increase productivity by making personal love afairs during working hours using company wheels unviable. Patients prone to wandering from institutions are similarly tagged. Call centre workers for years have been tied by electronic umbilicals into measurement systems that assess everything they do and say, and control and record their work, as well as limit their non-work goings-on during work time.
A researcher recently ran a study on how people might interact with robots in the workplace. The robot in question was described as looking like, “the maid from The Jetsons.” (Disturbingly, that was all the reference I needed.) Several variations of the study were conducted, as two human workers worked with the robot on a task to erect a complex construction using building blocks. The most productive scenario was the one where the robot was in charge. The researcher surmised that this was because it was a complex task and most people are happy enough to let someone else make the tough decisions. I can see myself in many future situations rolling my eyes and muttering something like, “#@%* this, let the robot do it.” (I’ve been using Google for most of my parenting tasks for years.)
Until the robot boom comes along, we’ll just have to rely on LinkedIn articles with titles like, ‘Seven Things Successful People Do Before Breakfast’ to get us up to speed on being more productive. (I’m hoping one of the seven things is ‘prepare breakfast.’) I’m not a complete luddite – tablets and smartphones and broadband have let me make tremendous strides in my personal and professional productivity. That said, I still reckon getting our organic brains into an optimal state for work is far and away the first thing we should do if we want a productive day: Have challenging and specific goals and a plan for each day; keep your workspace tidy and organised; sleep properly; take breaks and get away for a lunch break even if it’s quick. Stop consuming sugar.
I visited the Department of Statistics website for some info around productivity in New Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. I then went to the Treasury website and found a presentation on productivity. Apparently, New Zealand has been doing better over the past decade than the OECD countries we like to compare ourselves to but only because we were so bad to begin with. It would take another 10 years at our current rate of productivity growth to catch up to the United Kingdom’s, if their productivity didn’t change at all. The presentation’s author from treasury must be an expert on productivity – he produced 146 PowerPoint slides. (I’m assuming it was a ‘he.’ A ‘she’ would’ve done away with half those slides and communicated much the same thing with her eyebrows.)
The Zeigarnik Effect is a psychological phenomenon that makes humans very umcomfortable with unfinished things. A great way to drive yourself productively is to start. Be it that university essay, the kitchen shelves that need putting up or the drafting of that marketing plan at work, just starting is a powerful tool. Well, that’s what I found when I wrote this article fifty minutes from deadline.
My understanding of coaching is that it is a bit like art – you may not be able to define it but you know it when you see it. Or was that pornography? Some people try and narrow down its definition by specifying what coaching is not. Coaching is not training, leading, managing, facilitating or mentoring. Training implies that the trainer knows something that the trainee doesn’t know but needs to know and it’s up to the trainer to fix that. Managing is about tasks and things and almost certainly has an actual or implied hierarchy and power imbalance. Leading is about hearts and minds, providing inspiration and motivation to someone, who in the leader’s opinion, requires more motivation but seems to be unable to generate it themselves. Facilitation involves directing or controlling an individual or group. Mentoring demands a relationship between an experienced expert and someone inexperienced and / or inexpert who wants to do or be what the mentor does / is.
A common metaphor for coaching in business is coaching in sport; it’s easy to say that. People get it quickly but it’s not a fitting comparison. Sports coaches are the boss. They’re in charge. They’ve got extensive expertise and experience. More likely than not, they’ve been in the team being coached and after their playing career, they’ve logically moved into coaching. Though not every player has been able to make that transition.
Business coaching or professional development coaching are different. There’s no power imbalance (or there shouldn’t be.) There’s no expertise imbalance. A coach is an independent force there to observe, listen, reflect, probe, prompt. A coach probably doesn’t know the answers or have the direct experience of the issues and opportunities of the person being coached. You need permission to coach. The coach is not in control. The coach need not have all the answers and better not pretend that they do. The coach does need to keep the person being coached honest, focused and aiming at development that is genuinely necessary and attainable.
Most employees, most of the time, will do what they are directly told to do. That’s management and if that is all there was, then managers would have to be omnipresent because that’s the limitation of the command-and-control hierarchical power-based model. The reality is that managers have lots to do and places to be. Tom Peters wasn’t wrong when he said that the true test of your leadership is what happens when you’re not around. (Unless it wasn’t Tom Peters who said that? In which case, it’s me who’s wrong. Leave Tom Peters alone.) The baseline assumption behind coaching is that it’s ongoing, progress is expected, that progress is the responsibility of the person being coached, and the coach is responsible for the coaching process. Ongoing professional development can genuinely benefit from an effective and frequent coaching programme. A Bersin study found that companies with an effective and frequent coaching programme improve their business results by 21 percent as compared to those who never coach.
Can a manager also be an effective coach in an employment context? Sure, why not? They’re doing everything else. Bosses can wear rotating hats with labels like ‘coach’, ‘manager’, ‘leader’ or whatever and that’s probably pragmatic. But, there’s a value especially for coaching in a real and / or [perceived independence, coupled with a perspective and helpful naiveté born of being an outsider. Sometimes, it’s worth hiring someone to do the coaching. (I don’t do much coaching myself. It’s hard work. Genuinely that’ll put me off most things. But I do some coaching. Client companies sometimes ask me to coach after I’ve spoken, facilitated or trained. They like the other things I do, the results I get and just plain like me. ‘Like’ is probably the wrong word. Both the client company and the individuals being coached have to trust and respect the external coach. There have definitely been times where whatever emotion was being directed at me, it wasn’t ‘liking.’)
Coaches are about ‘ask’ not ‘tell’. A coach’s focus is the employee not a task. Coaching is not fixing anyone. Coaching has clear accountability. Coaching can be scheduled but it’s more an ‘as need when needed’ thing. Coaching is about a set of processes, more than it is about a coach. That said, a coaching toolbox is useless, and sometimes dangerous, if operated by someone calling themselves a coach who lacks the wisdom to know when to use which tool. In that regard, coaching is like every single DIY activity I’ve ever done that resulted in a heated towel rail power switch being installed upside down, a door handle going in inside out or a chainsaw that’s now more functional as a doorstop.
Coaching is a journey, like ‘Lord Of The Rings’ was a journey. And like ‘Lord Of The Rings’, not everyone finishes the journey. And if you’ve got giant eagles available for your coaching process, use them right away, not at the end when otherwise all else seems lost. Duh.
You know how you walk in a room and you get a whole bunch of things done and then, just as you’re about to leave the room, you realise that you didn’t do the main thing that you actually went into that room to do? Now think about that, but instead of a room, it’s your life.
I’m not suggesting that employees should be made to be miserable. Ultimately, that’s up to all of us individually. The point I’ve been trying to make for ages and this recent article captures nicely is that employee happiness and employee engagement are quite separate and different things. If you want to gift chocolate fish and back rubs (no non-consensual touching!) that’s up to you and your spare time and resources. Happy employees can be unproductive and unhappy ones can be productive. Engagement is about the observable application of discretionary effort at work that on average leads to greater productivity, revenue and profitability. Who knows how happy people are? (Including themselves.)
Here’s an extract. Note that happiness is cited as one of many components of engagement, so it’s not all doom and gloom. I don’t think they’re in order so don’t get excited that happiness is “number 1.” The article talks about a dashboard which also is an interesting idea. It’s all about trending.
Here are the 10 metrics that are proven to have the biggest impact on employee engagement:
How happy are employees at work and at home?
How much energy do employees have at work?
Are employees getting feedback frequently enough?
Are employees being recognized for their hard work?
Are employees satisfied with their work environment?
Relationships with Managers
Do employees and their managers get along well?
Relationships with Colleagues
Do the employees get along with each other?
Do employees’ values align with the company values?
Are employees proud of where they work?
Do employees have opportunities for career growth?
This HBR article about debriefing is one I wish I’d written. (From meglomaniacal me, that’s high praise.) I’m often directing participants in my training workshops to conduct debriefs. I tend to use experiential models a lot. For non-trainers (muggles?), that means we do things, then learn from them in a structured way. I favour a 3-phased approach, repeated over and over:
- Frame the activity
- Conduct the activity
- Debrief the activity
I hear a lot of people using the word ‘debrief’ and its meaning seems to vary wildly. In that sense, the word ‘debrief’ is much like the word ‘spicy’ or the word ‘love.’ I try to consistently summarise the meaning of it in my workshops, not just because we’ll use it in the workshops but because it’s one of the most useful things you’ll ever learn in life, not just for work, but for situations where things happen and you’d benefit from learning afterwards. That applies a lot outside work (hopefully.) Relationships and families could well do with that skill. It’d certainly give us something to talk about over compulsory sunday night family dinners.
To do something and to deliberately learn from it is what successful people do. That might even be a great definition of what success is. To do something and maybe learn from it or not learn from it is what most people do most of the time. Don’t be most people. They’re nice enough but…
The HBR article gives a great structure if you want to either learn debriefing yourself or communicate it to others:
- Schedule a regular time and place (ie make debriefing part of the way things are done around here!)
- Create a learning environment
- Review 4 key questions: What were we trying to accomplish?; Where did we hit or miss our objectives?; What caused our results?; What should we stop / start / continue doing? (I’m a big fan of stop / start / continue; That’s the name of one of my books ‘Stop Start Continue’!)
- Codify lessons learned (People after us will learn from our mistakes, not theirs.)
Picture if you will a vertical axis called ‘Challenge’ and a horizontal axis called ‘Skill.’ Various combinations of challenge and skill can result in a person being in a state of apathy, worry, control… but what we’re aiming for more of is ‘FLOW’ – a magical (not really magical) state where a high level of skill meets a high level of challenge. Time flies and good things happen. Here’s my recent podcast about it, why it’s so rare, and like a low of rare things why it’s so valuable.
I showed this video today in a time management workshop I was running. I had a pretty good idea that none of the participants had any issues themselves with procrastination – quite the reverse. But, it occurred to me that they might have others for whom procrastination was an issue. And I was kind of right. They did have other people they needed to help with procrastination but those people weren’t work people – they were family or friends. I often find it useful to make connections from workplace professional development topics to non-work uses, often social ones. Just another lever to get their brains on board.
The video is short and cute and hits 3 or 4 key points. Makes a lot of sense. Besides, who doesn’t like phrases like “temporal discounting”?
My family and I have just moved to a 5 acre property just north of Auckland that, by my standards, could be classified as ‘rural.’ I’m definitely a city slicker but I now own a barn so that’s something. Next to the barn was a chicken run and coop. It didn’t take much nudging to set out to get in some chickens and to choose to do so by taking in some rescue hens. And by ‘rescue hens’, I mean hens that have been rescued, not a team of superhero chickens that go around performing rescues. (It’s early days, give them time.)
Everyone has been sharing their chicken stories and advice and given the misinformation about roosters, I welcome the stories but not the advice for the most part.
I’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty intense job interviews in the past but none were as impressive as the hen-rescuing lady who interviewed me for my suitability to adopt 6 of her ‘girls.’ I passed muster, sent photos of my coop and signed a contract.
My next few blog posts are going to draw on the chicken and egg metaphorical comparison to people and productivity. I’ll start with the contract. People have been aghast that I was asked to sign a contract when they perceived that I was doing the rescuers and the hens a favour by showing up at all. While I was initially surprised at the formality, I get it. Commitment. Absolute clarity of understanding of expectations. If the chickens stop producing, I’ve signed on that I’ll keep ’em on regardless. I might not like it but I’ve committed to it. I didn’t have to. I could’ve walked away. (I would’ve driven not walked. It’s rural for goodness sake!)