Category Archives: Personal Productivity
This article goes into an experiment by Ryosuke Ozawa and other scientists from Kyoto University who found that subjects perceived a journey from A to B as seeming longer than B to A. In this case, ‘A’ is home.
You can read the article yourself but first I’ll quickly summarise the possible reasons why, then I’ll suggest how we might use this finding on ourselves and those we lead or influence in order to nudge ourselves into more positive mindsets and better results – or, at least, results about which we might feel better.
The first reason centres around familiarity. The bits of our brain that were on duty back in caveman times (caveperson) were really attuned to not getting eaten by predators. Back then the food chain wasn’t just an abstract concept to humans. Something new was noticed and time and energy in the brain given to assessing it. Could it eat us? Could we eat it? Could I start a family with it or at leats give it a go? That’s about it. It’s that time and energy given by the brain to the unfamiliar that may generate a perception of longer time. Similarly, under stress oneof the physical effects you may not have noticed is the dilation of the eyes’ pupils. This is let in more light so we can react more quickly in a fight or flight situation, doing punches ‘Matrix’-style. I guess we’ve evolved from successful fighters. With stress memories seen through dilated pupils, those memories seem bigger and slower than actual reality. Interviews with victims of armed robberies regularly report the robbers as being significantly bigger than they actually were.
For those journeys away to unfamiliar places, perhaps for an event that might stress us like a new client, job interview, presentation, etc, we may well perceive as longer due to the strangeness / unfamiliarity. Returning home, the stress is less and there is at least one previous experience of the route.
A morale for this story – if you’re trying to be creative or inspire someone, take them for a walk away from the familiar workplace. I’m not suggesting you drive them into the woods at midnight – just hit up a different cafe from the usual watering hole.
“OUR BRAINS KEEP TRACK OF TIME USING VERY DISTINCT SYSTEMS”. – Dan Zakay
The second reason was overestimation / overconfidence. Before the first journey is taken, most people usually underestimate how long it will take. On the return, we over-correct and over-estimate so relative to our 2nd guess, it seems quicker. Disneyland and such themeparks regularly use this effect for queue management. A sign may suggest this point has a 45-minute waiting time whereas it’s only 20 so when you fly through in 20-25, it seems quicker. (Either way you’re probably buying an over-priced soda on the way).
The third reason was a contrast between worring or anticipating about the purpose of the trip and generally positive feelings about home after some sense of completion. Other research has shown that time does fly when you’re having fun and drags during calculus class (or whatever your ‘calculus class’ was). Also, time flies, at least in your brain, just after you’ve had fun.
So, leaving aside driving to places for gigs, interviews, etc, in what situations might the ‘return-trip effect’ be useful to us developing more positive mindsets and better results?
If you’re planning a project, you need to programme in some last steps to ‘return home’ – to compare and appreciate how far you’ve come. If you’re in a relationship and blocking out date nights, don’t stick to the same safe favourite place. Mix it up. If you do the regular family holiday, consider the pro’s and cons of always going to the same place. Cost-aside, the brains of your family will remember more positively and for longer the unfamiliar. Ironically the word familiar, of course, is derived from family.
More ideas at http://gettingbetterbuyin.com/
You’ve only got so much self control; Don’t waste it!
This article in ‘Psychology Today’ by Susan Krauss reports on Roy Baumeister’s work about how our self control can be sapped through overuse.
Personally, I’ve always had a mental model of willpower / self discipline / self control as a muscle that you could exercise and get to grow stronger. It turns out to actually be a tank that gets emptied but can be refilled and we can rely on random chance to do it for us, or be proactive and consciously and deliberately take actions that refill our willpower tank.
Oddly, the only thing proven to do so is consumption of small amounts of actual sugar. As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as rational creatures who, through strength of character, can be better people, maybe our natural level of self control is set through natural random chemical chance? It’s like those old Donald Duck cartoons where he’s in a dilemma and on one shoulder a little duck angel appears and on his other shoulder appears a little duck devil who argue it out into each of his ears. This ‘strength’ or ‘ego depletion’ theory implies that the angel gets weary and the devil gets his way until the angel rests up. And the best advice is to slip the angel a barley sugar or a powerade like it’s on a triathalon.
Krauss argues, and I agree, that if the model is that of a muscle that gets tired, then maybe the same progressive development can be applied to our willpower muscle that bodybuilders apply to their actual muscles. Keep working it out and it’ll get stronger over time but you need to keep increasing the weight / temptation to build it up. No pain; no gain.
No weight trainer or body builder says, “I’m going to curl this 20kg with my bicep forever,” yet you’re supposed to say, “I’m never going to have chocolate cake ever again.” That seems unrealistic, demoralising and potentially counterproductive. Weight trainers say, “I’m going to curl this 20kg weight 8-12 times or until I can’t, then rest, then do that set two more times. After time, that’ll get easier and I’ll increase the weight.” I don’t know what the cake equivalent is but it isn’t, “None ever again.” Work up to it.
Employers probably aren’t directly interested in employees’ cake avoidance or body building abilities but willpower / self control is likely a contributor to perseverance and grit which, as I write about frequently, are the most common precursors to success at work (or anywhere else for that matter.) So, if you’re leading someone at work who gives up, can’t focus for long enough or is constantly engaging in temptations that are distracting them from activities that should be adding value to their work and their lives, what can you do?
Well, if we’re stick to our weight training metaphor, you become their personal trainer. Not one of those old school cliche ‘Drill Sergeant’ types who shout, “You’re worthless and weak!! Give me twenty!!” Set challenging but realistic micro-goals that progressively build towards the desired target. Each success builds on itself, they’re more likely to buy-in to it and participate and, ultimately, you and they are more likely to achieve the end goal. But even the fluffiest of personal trainers aren’t pushovers. They don’t accept excuses and they demand honesty and effort.
And the irony is, given that sugar refuels our willpower tank, even if you do eat the cake, you may regret it but you’re less likely to eat more cake. So, in a tenuous way, you can have your cake and eat it too. Try a handful of dried cranberries. They’re the supposed ‘Superfruit.’ You never hear of ‘Supercake.’ (If you have heard of ‘Supercake’, please do let me know…)
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More ideas at http://gettingbetterbuyin.com/
This article covers some workplaces that have gone for the fun and funky motif – perhaps some others have tried to, but in the superficial way where all the mini golf courses in corridors and Harry Potter secret doors and fireman poles cannot overcome the dull, uninspiring work infecting dulled, uninspired inhabitants.
Cosmetic efforts at dollying-up the physical environment or doing ‘David-Brent-From-The Office UK’ level of cringe-worthy activities is superficial, paternalistic and, at best, only effective in the short term.
“…one of the most important factors in engagement actually relates to internal employee happiness rather than external stimuli. This means, in the same way that buying children a lollipop will please them for a few minutes, ‘faux fun’ will have equally short-term benefits”.
A boss with a rubber chicken is probably embarrassing or at best diverting attention from problems that demand competent attention. Several real chickens would probably be more effective at boosting morale, although you’d rather have it be your turn to clean the microwave than clean up after Katy Pecky and Christina Eggalayer.
I MC’d a conference in Wellington a while ago. In the afternoon, we were taken on a waling tour of a couple of high-profile workplaces – TradeMe and Xero. Ostensibly, we were looking at the physical layout of the workplaces as they were famous / infamous for being Googly / Appley in their fun, modern, even futuristic designs. And, yes, on arrival it was very visibly overt and different. Walls lined with classic album covers, a five-story spiral slide in the centre of the building and even a choice of several boutique beers on tap in the staff canteen with sweeping harbour views for all.
But these places also walked the talk. It was not superficial; it was representative. One meeting room was a caravan parked in a large space. It was an old caravan fitted out with the mod cons of an office meeting room. But it was also one of the first items ever sold on their site. It meant something. It represented something. But it was also practical, flexible and had genuine functionality.
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More ideas at http://gettingbetterbuyin.com/
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.