Getting S**t Done
4 Ways to Learn How to Work Effectively
I was with a client yesterday when he announced that he had never learned how to work, right in the middle of a conversation around discipline and focus. He realised that after a lacklustre education, he went straight into running his own business and had never acquired a set of habits or a framework around productivity. He looked on with envy at the Silicon Valley powerhouses who rose at 5am and had changed the world by 7.30am. His challenge was that instead of processing all the creative ideas he had, he was deep into a world of distraction through email, social media and the US news cycle. This led to a spiral of feeling helpless, failing to fulfil potential and general escapism. He left our day together with a clear plan of how to tackle this challenge and with a spring in his step. Here is what we worked through:
Routine. The highly productive people I work with structure their days along similar lines, which looks something like this:
Almost all find the mornings their most creative and productive – which some call it the morning sprint. This is typically three to four hours ending at around midday. Most take some form of short break every 30-45 minutes, a walk around the block or a chat with someone. The morning is absolutely about creating and processing ideas. Doing real work, not responding to or being ruled by inbound calls, emails or posts or colleagues. This may feel totally impossible in a busy office environment. Perhaps start by trying to carve out 60-90 minutes. Talk to your team and your colleagues, could a group of you experiment with this together? You may have to physically change location for this key work time.
With the morning sprint done, there is no need to work late into the night, the productivity boost from working effectively without distraction replaces the 2-3 hours of poor quality work that is done at the end of a long day. Some will exercise before work- others at lunchtime or after work. Almost all will take some form of exercise each day, mixing it up, with some being fun or low key interspersed with more high intensity “duty” workouts. Contrary to the popular belief that routine and structure stifle creativity, when you read the biographies of writers they seem to have short intense periods of work, normally in the mornings.
My undergrad Psychology dissertation was on the impact on elite sport (rowing) on the academic performance of students. I wanted to debunk the myth that the six hours a day spent training damaged students grades. The research came back positive, academic achievement was actually higher among the oarsmen. Why? It was down to time management. With only three to four hours in the morning to work (they were all too tired to work in the evenings) the rowers had to be highly productive. They had a structured day and routine forced on them and were performing the morning sprint without thinking about it. For those of us who have to create our own structure and routines there are rich lessons to be applied.
Capacity. How do you feel when you look at your diary and to do list for the week to come? If all you can see are endless meetings and commitments then the chances are you feeling overwhelmed. This is the enemy to great productivity. Instead of being on the front foot and waterskiing your way through the day, it feels like wading through treacle, moving more and more slowly. I often talk about the concept of exceptional items with my clients. These are items that are one-off and take a significant amount of time. A building project at home is an example, likely to be a day a week even if you are only involved at a high level. These items can appear from nowhere or be initiated by you. At any one time, one to two exceptional items is likely to be manageable, any more, and you are likely to be overwhelmed. An ill parent is another example, or recruiting for a key position at work. It is essential that you start your week with white space in the diary. Ideally, one should aim to have around 30% of your working week as unallocated. (N.B the morning sprint above counts as an allocation). This allows unexpected items to be accommodated and also for idling time where the brain can switch into neutral and create fantastic ideas.
There are three ways to reach this point, you can:
- Delete items
- Delegate items
- Just say no
Use the first two to halve your to do list (now) and the last one to keep the list short. I work with clients to develop a filter that allows them to work out what to say no to, and what to delegate. It starts with being very clear about what the mission is; both in the long term but also for this week and this day. Also, in having an ongoing understanding of your capacity and how much is spare, deciding to take on something means that only you can do it, and it is critical to the current mission.
Technology. Although no doubt liberating in some ways, our portable technology left unchecked can be a huge killer of productivity. I have written before about the perils of the smart phone, the same can be said of tablets. These serve both as inbound distractions through notifications and red dots, and also as an infinite pool of amped up media and video stories, with content and technology designed to keep us watching. Add Trump and May into the mix, and you have a perfect storm of highly addictive content pulling you from productivity. This is proper addiction territory and the research is only now catching up. Clients who have managed to come off or contain news and social media do report huge increases in productivity.
Making it stick. This is hard. It takes three months to change a habit, so there is just going to be a phase of self-discipline and reinforcement.
- Bring someone else in to help make you accountable to him or her.
- Pick a routine that works for you, some of us are better later in the day so an afternoon sprint is fine too.
- Keep a day chart and tick the activities as you manage them.
- Give yourself a reward at the end of the day or week. This may sound facile, or just too like what we might do with our 5-year old kids but it works and increases the accountability to you.
And remember to be kind to yourself. I allocated 10-12 pm today to draft this blog. By 11 am all I had done was watch some cycling on line and do some financial sums on our bank accounts. I just was not in the right frame of mind. Here I am though at 12.30 pm finishing up. My point is, that even with the best routine and self-discipline there are just going to be days when it does not work. Either you are low energy or there are meetings and calls that you simply have to do. The goal is to have more days than not when you keep to your routine and that is an excellent result.
Learning how to work effectively may mean changing a lifetime of habits, or in the case of my client, finally learning new habits, but the end result will be positive productivity and well worth the effort.
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