Make it a priority

“You had better make that a priority!”

A common phrase that we hear every day in our workplace. But what does it really mean? How do we ascertain if something is a priority? What behaviours does that then drive if we do make something a priority?

The word priority comes from the Latin word Prioritas which roughly means to come before in time, order or importance. This definition provides a useful framework when we need to prioritise on a day to day basis. The challenge we all face is that we have more to do than we have time available. It is a very limited resource. So to manage our time and priorities effectively, we need to make some decisions about what we do, and when we do it.

The first prioritisation technique we could use is what I call filtering. This is where we prioritise based on whether something is an important use of our time. When checking email, accepting meeting invites, dealing with interruptions or even answering the phone, we should always be filtering out the lower value demands on our time, and filtering in the things that are a genuinely a good use of our time. The most productive people are usually very good at filtering.

A second prioritisation technique that we can use is scheduling. Choosing when to work on your priorities based on their deadline, or your capacity is critical to getting the right work done at the right time. If you do this well, and use the power of the time that lies in front of you, you will feel less overwhelmed and will work a lot more proactively than if you were to just let everything pile up.

Lastly, we can prioritise by sequencing our priority lists. Whether this list is a task list for the day, or your monthly list of big priorities, or a task list for a project, it will benefit from some sort of sequence. The challenge is to resist sequencing your work solely in order of urgency. A well sequenced list will evaluate both urgency and importance, and create a rough order of execution that is based upon something more than just “This is urgent”.

To truly create an impact, we have to ensure that as much as the time as possible we are working on the right work, at the right time, in the right order.

Are you clear about your priorities?

Posted on September 5, 2016 .

Our dirty little secrets

My brother is visiting from Ireland and of course staying at our place. While we generally keep the house clean and tidy, we spent the last few days doing an extra special round of cleaning. Cupboards, the fridge, drawers, under couches and beds, shelves, blinds. Places that privately we put up with being the dirty corners of our busy lives.

But when someone comes to stay, and those corners may become public places, we get busy cleaning and polishing. I was actually astounded at how much dirt I have been living with privately over the last couple of years. That said our house is generally clean, and I suspect (read hope) that we are just normal.  I have vowed that I will clean those drawers and corners in future at least every couple of months. It did not take long, and they looked and felt much better for it.

Is there a parallel here with our work spaces? Do we let things get messy when it is private, but feel the need to clean up when it might be public? I certainly see my coaching clients clearing their inbox before I come in as they know I will be looking at it!

Some of our work is very public, like meetings. And we are usually pretty good with managing those as others are involved, and it is immediately obvious when we are messy with meeting workload by turning up late or unprepared. But when it comes to how we manage our priorities, or our email, that is a much more private thing. Nobody gets to see how you manage this work, so we can get a bit messy. We manage this work in fragmented piles, and often leave things until the last minute as nobody will notice until it is overdue. Just in time is good enough.

But managing this work in a messy way can cause stress, a drop in work quality, a clash of deadlines or even lead to one of the biggest causes of productivity loss – rework. Don’t just wait until this work becomes public to get it organised. Make an effort to keep your inbox under control and your task list up to date whether other people can see it or not. Manage your work with integrity. They say that integrity is when you do the right thing even though nobody else is looking.

Ok, back to my cupboards. I think I see some more dirt! I hope my brother appreciates this.

Posted on August 22, 2016 .

Time to think?

A recent KPMG Global CEO survey found that 86% of global leaders struggled to find time to think about two of the most critical drivers in their businesses – disruption and innovation. In Australia, that percentage crept up to 94%. When you think about the role a leader plays in steering the organisation in the right direction, and navigating the challenges in a complex and volatile environment, not having enough time to think has to be problematic.

I am not surprised by this though. This issue comes up every time I work with a leadership team on their productivity. They are so pressured during the day with meetings, emails and interruptions, they have no time to really think, make sense of things, connect the dots or make quality decisions.

I believe that those working at the leadership level need to protect time for four key disciplines. They need to communicate strategy and give instructions (Talk), gather intelligence (Listen), make decisions (Decide) and take time to ponder and sense-make (Think).

Most leaders spend a lot of their time talking and listening, which are both activities they do in collaboration with others, or what I label as ‘facing out’. These collaboration activities, often in the form of meetings, are critical for any leader, but can swamp the schedule and leave little time for other work.

They then tell themselves a story about how this is just the nature of their role, and they need to leave thinking and deciding until outside of hours. But the problem here is that this impacts on their family or personal time, which has real and severe consequences in some cases. And there has to be question marks over the quality of this thinking!

I believe to be truly effective, leaders need to actively make and protect time in their week to ‘face in’ – spend time alone thinking and making decisions. They should not see this as downtime, wasted time or less valuable time. In fact, it may be the most valuable time in their week.

I once worked with a law-firm partner who said the most valuable lesson he learnt as a junior lawyer from his first senior partner was to never be afraid to look out of the window. His boss said that if he ever caught him looking out the window, he would know he was doing what he was paid to do – think!

Have you stopped looking out of the window?

Make your outcomes visible

‘Are you outcomes-driven or are you inputs-driven?’ 

– This is a question I often pose during my productivity presentations and workshops. 

By outcomes-driven, I mean do you let the bigger picture drive how you spend your time? The significant work, the work that makes the most difference over the long term.  By inputs-driven, I mean do you let the immediate drive how you spend your time? The stuff that’s just turned up in your inbox, interruptions, “drive-by” meetings. 

Unfortunately, the reality is that way too often, much of our precious time is driven by our inputs - they’re noisier, and more in your face. 

Monthly planning is a sure-fire way to achieve greater balance between being inputs- and outcomes-driven.  At the start of every month, think about and record your ‘Top 10’ – the significant, meaningful pieces of work that require your time and attention, the biggest priorities for the month ahead. 

When I invite participants to do this during workshops, I often find people struggle to come up with something even close to 10. 

I am positive the outcomes would exist somewhere, since most businesses engage in setting goals and objectives each year.  But perhaps they are buried in a document or plan that’s gathering dust somewhere; perhaps they exist in your head only.  This lack of visibility of the most important work often results in people being driven by their inputs instead - living in the inbox; reacting way too quickly to urgency; being very, very busy, but not necessarily as effective as you could or need to be

Stopping at least once a month to connect with your outcomes helps you to stay focused on the right work, and to prioritise how you spend your time each week. Making your outcomes visible and tangible by thinking about them and getting them out of your head, or the pile they are buried in, will help you to connect with them more frequently.

How connected are you with your outcomes?           

Scheduling actions – hard or soft?

A common question that we hear when discussing task management in workshops is 'When should a task be blocked out as an appointment in the calendar'? Blocking out time, or what I call ‘Hard scheduling’ is a great strategy for putting traction into your action, but if overused or misused, it can work against your productivity.

In Smart Work, I talk about the difference between meeting and task workload. Meetings are ‘fixed’ commitments that we have with other people, tasks are ‘flexible’ commitments that we have with ourselves. Meetings need a scheduling tool that allows specific scheduling for both date and time. But tasks, given their more discretionary nature, need a more flexible system to manage them effectively.

So, in a good scheduling system, where meetings and tasks are managed together in a holistic way, meetings are hard scheduled into your calendar, and tasks can be soft scheduled into a dated task list. The difference is that although both are scheduled by date, only meetings are scheduled with a specific start and finish time.

But, I believe there can be a case for hard scheduling tasks into your calendar, sometimes. If you choose the right circumstances to do this, and you honour the time that you block out, this is a great strategy to make sure the important work gets done in a timely way.

Here are some circumstances where I will hard schedule tasks into my calendar:

  • Any task that will take more than 1 hour of concentration time
  • If I have pressure on my schedule from others, and need to protect time for the task
  • If the work is something I am likely to procrastinate about
  • A task that need to be complete by a specific time in the day i.e. a report due by midday
  • If the task requires me to go somewhere outside of the office

I reckon that your calendar and task list are both designed to help you get things done at the right time. The calendar is by nature more time focused, so is worth using in these situations. But be careful not to overuse the calendar for task workload. There is a risk that you may end up ignoring the reminder that pops up for the activity, and end up leaving work behind in your inflexible calendar. If you schedule it, do it, or prioritise again and reschedule the activity.

A sense of perspective

At the start of each month I have a recurring priority scheduled in my task list. It reminds me that at some stage in that week, I need to sit down and get some perspective. To take some time out from doing, and spend some time thinking about my top 10 BIG priorities for the month ahead.

So, when the time comes, I set myself up in a quiet space with a coffee and print-out a two-page template that helps me to prioritise. It is my version of a prioritisation strategy used in the project management industry to prioritise competing projects called forced-ranked prioritisation. Essentially it forces me to compare my list of ten priorities against each other to come up with a sequenced list from most important, to least important.

Now, this list is not a list of things to do. It is not at the task level of granularity. It is a list of projects, issues or opportunities that I would like to move forward in a significant way this month. This is about the BIG picture, and about getting some perspective into my thinking.

Once I have ranked each priority against the other priorities and come up with a prioritised sequence, I gain some valuable perspective about what I should be spending my time on over the coming weeks. Out of this list should drop next-step actions that get scheduled into my calendar or task list. This creates traction, and ensures that how my time is being spent is a healthy balance of proactive as well as reactive work. It focuses my attention, and ensure that my work is driven by importance, not just by urgency.

This week, a pretty busy few days turned into a light few days as two client engagements rescheduled at short notice. Some days in the office – gold! How could I best use that time? To work that out, I turned to my Top 10 list and eyed my top three priorities on the list. Two days later I have moved several significant pieces of work forward. Work that will add substantial value to my business in the long term.

My suspicion is that without doing the prioritisation exercise last week, I might have spent the last two days ‘catching up’ with myself. Clearing emails and faffing around with the small stuff. Instead, I knew exactly what deserved my time.

What is your strategy for gaining perspective? Do you have one? If not, please send me an email and it would be my pleasure to send my Monthly Top 10 prioritisation tool to you

How we waste each other’s time

While much of my time is spent helping workers to increase their personal productivity, I also see many issues with how we work together. The truth is that your behaviours affect my productivity, and my behaviours affect your productivity. Teams that do not put strategies in place to manage this will experience a sense of friction when they collaborate together. Teams that do work on this will experience a sense of flow.

Most people are trying their hardest, and certainly do not mean to drag other people’s productivity down. It is often unconscious behaviours that cause the friction. So it might be useful to bring to the surface all of the ways that you might be diluting your team’s productivity. See how many of the following unproductive behaviours you are guilty of from time to time.

Meetings

  • Turning up late
  • Coming unprepared
  • Not following through on agreed actions
  • Inviting the wrong people
  • Calling meetings at short notice
  • Not clarifying meeting outcomes or the agenda

Emails

  • Sending too many
  • Writing unclear communications
  • Burying the actions three paragraphs in
  • Copying people unnecessarily
  • Writing fuzzy subject lines
  • Marking emails as urgent every time

Delegations

  • Choosing the wrong people for the job
  • Delegating at the last minute
  • Delegating in a rush
  • Giving responsibility but no power
  • Micro-managing the delegation
  • Not providing enough support when needed

Interruptions

  • Interrupting too often
  • Having a lack of awareness and empathy
  • Interrupting to manage your mind clutter
  • Making negotiation hard for the other person
  • Make every interruption an urgent issue

Deadlines

  • Leaving work until the last minute
  • Creating unnecessary urgency
  • Expecting instant responses
  • Forgetting deadlines
  • Being a squeaky wheel

If we expect other people to respect our time (and we should), we in turn should respect theirs. With the right mindset, we have the opportunity to amplify the productivity of those around us, rather than dilute it. Play well together.

Do you conduct or cushion urgency?

In case you haven’t noticed, your team is probably drowning in emails, buried in meetings and struggling to deliver the critical outcomes you and the organisation need from them. Much of the work that comes their way is urgent, and they probably spend much of their week reacting to the latest crises. And while you would like to think that your team is the gold standard in responsiveness, the constant bombardment of urgent work will eventually take its toll on their morale and on the quality of their work.

As a leader or a manager, you have a responsibility to your team to protect them from unnecessary urgency. A part of your role is to act as a shock-absorber or buffer that will dampen the urgency being driven by other parts of the organisation - from stakeholders, from senior management and from clients.

This is a contentious idea, as many would see your role as a conductor of that urgency. That you should be communicating the urgency to your team, and ensuring they get on with the job with a sense of urgency.  But I see this leading more often than not to senseless urgency, rather than a sense of urgency. And remember, in many cases the urgency is not real, or is unreasonable. Your job should be to evaluate the request and work out if the urgency is real or not, or if it is reasonable or not. If it is false or unreasonable, you may need to push back, negotiate or simply ask why?

A manager I worked with recently was an urgency conductor. Many requests and issues came his way from the leadership team in the organisation. He invariably passed these urgent crises straight to his team, pulling them off whatever they were working on. His team were in a constant state of anxiety, and felt that they could never plan as their week and day was always rearranged at the last moment. They did not feel that many of these issues were truly urgent. They felt that other more senior managers made things urgent either because that was how they got stuff done, or they left things until the last minute and then made the request. Their manager responded to their seniority and let them away with this, and expected the team to suck it up. Not surprisingly this was a high stress, high turnover team.

So, what can you do to cushion the urgency a bit?

  • Always ask when work is needed by before accepting it (not when they want it)
  • Push back on unreasonable deadlines
  • Make sure you know what your team has on their plate already
  • If something is truly urgent, ask why it is urgent. What could have been done differently?
  • Fight to protect your teams’ time – it is their most precious resource
  • Remember that you are not working in ER (unless you actually are)

What can you do differently this week to dial down the urgency for your team?

Posted on May 30, 2016 .

Busy: A story we tell ourselves

Two executives bump into each other in a lift. One asks the other how she is going. She replies “Busy”. It is almost an instinctive answer that we give when asked the question. But we are all busy. I reckon that busy is the story we tell ourselves when we have not prioritised our time effectively.

Henry David Thoreau once said “It is not enough to be busy; so are ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” 

If you are always so busy that it becomes the badge of honour that you display when asked how you are, maybe you have let too much low value work into your schedule, or failed to prioritise what you have on your plate effectively. Now I can hear some of you say “But we have no other option – this all needs to get done and I am expected to do it”. I hear you, but respectfully suggest that you always have options. You just need to get creative and go beyond your initial reaction of OK, I will do it.

Here are some thought starters:

  1. Say no more often. It is a small but powerful word
  2. Push back on urgent deadlines. They are rarely as urgent as people make out
  3. Plan your meetings and priorities for the week ahead, and make them both visible in your schedule
  4. Be clear about your most important priorities for the month ahead, and fight for the time to work on those things
  5. See workload negotiation as a positive and necessary skill. I bet your line manager is good at it!
  6. Delegate more. And remember, you don’t have to be the boss to delegate to others
  7. Negotiate how much time you will spend on activities. For instance, agree to attend 15 minutes of a meeting to deliver your action, rather than attend the whole meeting
  8. Don’t look at gaps in your schedule as ‘free time’. See these gaps as time to get your priorities done, and protect them well
  9. Be ruthless in controlling your schedule. If you don’t, they will

Change your mindset and automatic response. Next time you are asked how you are, don’t just say ‘busy’ - say ‘productive’

Which actions can you take today to reduce your “busyness”?

How is your productivity fitness?

Professional athletes in sports like rugby, soccer or AFL need a mix of anaerobic fitness and aerobic fitness to excel on the field. Anaerobic fitness is critical to short burst activity, like sprinting or lifting weights. The energy is created by a chemical reaction in the muscle. This is great for a burst of speed, but cannot be sustained for long.

Aerobic fitness is key to longer form activities, like distance running or constant movement on the field. The energy is created through oxygen in the lungs and bloodstream. By the way, I am no expert in the field of fitness, as my soccer teammates will attest, so forgive me for any scientific error in my descriptions above. I am trying to make a point about productivity.

You see, I believe there are two things that provide energy to our activities at work. Urgency and Importance. They are very similar to anaerobic and aerobic fitness, and need to be used in the right way at the right time for peak productivity performance.  I could even extend the analogy and say that we need to practice and train just like an athlete, if we want to be at the top of our game!

I see many executives over-using urgency as the energy to get things done. They often react to things like emails, making them urgent even though they are not, or they leave things until the last minute, where they are forced to react yet again. While a deadline can deliver that chemical burst of energy needed (anaerobic), if we use this energy to get everything done, the quality of our work suffers and we burn out.

Your work is a marathon, not a sprint, therefore I believe that importance (aerobic) should be the energy of choice for most of your work, punctuated by quick bursts of urgency when required. This will ensure a healthier approach to your work, and better overall results with less personal cost.

How do we ensure this balance? Dial down the urgency. Take a more proactive approach to your work, and ensure you have a solid action system in place to manage both your meetings and priorities in a proactive way. Negotiate deadlines and filter everything that tries to get into your schedule. Make importance the first filter you run potential activities though, then urgency. Take control. How you spend your time will dictate what you will achieve. Make sure your productivity fitness levels are at optimal if you want to survive, or even win the rat race.

Posted on May 2, 2016 .

The Holy Trinity of the Inbox

In a recent coaching session with a senior client, I had to give the executive some brutal and honest feedback. He had come to me with a specific problem. My Inbox is overwhelming me, he said. So, we worked on some strategies to get his 8,000 odd emails down to zero.

In our second session, he presented a very positive spin on his progress, and said he was feeling a lot better about his email. He had reduced his Inbox from 8,000 emails to just over 3,000. He was thrilled. I was disappointed. My belief is that he had made himself feel good about his progress by clearing some of the low hanging fruit in his Inbox. Deleting rubbish and filing the obvious. This made him feel like a good student, and that he was taking action as a result of our coaching sessions.

The truth was he was still a slave to his Inbox, was still trying to manage his priorities in a reactive way. He was not achieving the Holy Trinity of the Inbox – Clarity, Focus and Control

The reason I bang on about Inbox Zero so much is that I know that people who achieve it on a regular basis experience the following:

  • Greater clarity about what deserves their attention and what does not, because having reduced the noise, they can see the forest for the trees;
  • Increased focus on the important work, because they are consolidating their email-driven priorities into one task system alongside their other priorities;
  • A high level of control over how they spend their time, as they are proactively scheduling their work in a time-based action system, and therefore managing their time.

With my coaching client, when he measured his progress against the Holy Trinity, he came up short. Although he had cleared many emails from his Inbox, that was just the backlog. The real issues still remained. He had no clarity because his Inbox was still way too cluttered and overwhelming. He had no focus because his strategy for managing email actions was still mainly to leave them as unread in his Inbox. And he had no control as things kept slipping through the cracks or became urgent before he got to them.

Although Inbox Zero may feel like a chore and a constraint, it is actually easy and liberating once you put the right system in place, and adopt the right mindset.

How is your Inbox going? Are you achieving the Holy Trinity?

The death of email

A few weeks ago, I read a report that Ray Tomlinson, the man credited with the invention of email as we know it, as well as the @ symbol, died at the age of 74. It gave me pause to think about the impact that email has had on our lives and our work. While the great man is dead, is email also about to shake off its mortal coil any time soon?

Mark Twain was famously reported to say “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” in relation to some confusion regarding his gravely ill cousin.  I often have clients ask me if email is dead, or at least, dying. There is much discussion on the interwebs about the impending death of email, and about it being replaced by other, more suitable collaboration tools.

Well, in my opinion, the inventor might be dead, but his legacy lives on and will do so for some time in the corporate workplace. But is that really such a bad thing? I am not sure. I believe email to be a fantastic communication tool. It is we, the emailer, that use it poorly and in the wrong situations. When it does finally get replaced by some other tool, I guarantee we will sabotage that as well, and use it in turn poorly and in the wrong situations!

If you think about all of the frustrations we have about email, they are caused by our own behaviours.

  • Email was designed to be an asynchronous tool. I send it now and you deal with it in your time. But we have subverted this and made it a synchronous tool. I send it now and call you in 5 minutes if you have not responded!
  • I don’t think Ray ever envisioned that we would get more than twenty emails per day. Yet some of my clients are getting 300-400 per day.
  • Maybe Mr Tomlinson thought that email would reduce noise levels as we could quietly tap away at our keyboards and send a communication without distracting anyone. But maybe he did not foresee the amount of noise generated each day by our colleagues and sent into our inboxes.
  • I am sure the big man never thought that most workers would end up with an additional part-time job managing, filing and searching for this email information he enabled. Yet many of us spend way too much time trying to wrestle with our mailboxes and filing systems.
  • Did he ever imagine that most people would end up using their inbox as their priority management system? I don’t believe so. That would be crazy!

Ray did not invent email with these issues in mind. Like climate change these issues are man-made. While there are some sceptics that might refute that climate change exists, I reckon no-one could refute the issues that we have created with email.

So take a moment to reflect on what this great man has achieved, and make a promise to yourself to honour his memory by using email a little more wisely.

What could you do this week to change the way you use email?

Posted on April 4, 2016 .

Email Stereotypes - Which one are you?

Email Stereotypes - Which one are you?

 

I hate to stereotype - except when it provides a learning opportunity! I have recently been struck by the fact that I tend to see people managing their email in just four strikingly different ways. I could not help but label them and dig deeper into the characteristics of each style, and of course the impact that each style has on their productivity. Which one are you?

The Hoarder
The hoarder basically uses their inbox as a one-stop shop for everything. They receive email into their Inbox. They also use it as their filing system, and will then use it as their action list for emails. It is not unusual for them to have 1000's of emails in their Inbox. Now, they will defend their organising style vehemently, and suggest that is it just more efficient to keep everything in the Inbox. That way they always have their information close at hand. I don't agree. My belief is that the hoarder is at risk of living in chaos. Research shows that stress levels rise when you have more than 50 emails in the inbox, and hoarders are definitely at risk of having important actions slip through the cracks, or become urgent before they get to them.

The Spring Cleaner
The spring cleaner can often be found on a long-haul flight cleaning out their Inbox. They operate like hoarders, but are uncomfortable with this fact, so every now and again they will do a massive clean out and get their Inbox back in control. These are the people you often receive a reply from 3 months after you sent the original email! They do file emails into folders when they have time, but this is inconsistent. They also tend to use their Inbox as their action system, but can fall behind on their action list very quickly. A spring cleaner will usually have 100's of emails in their inbox at any one time. The problem with the spring cleaner is that they live most of the time in confusion - only ever feeling in control a couple of times per year.

The Screen Saver
The screen saver has a definite line in their mind which indicates if they are in control or not. It is usually when they can get their emails down to a screen full of emails. Once they can see all of their outstanding emails in one screen, they feel OK. This gives them a sense of control. They will usually have just 10's of emails in their Inbox at any given time. I believe it is certainly a much more effective way to manage email than our previous characters, but they are still not going far enough for me.

The Zero Hero
The zero hero's are my type of people. They are not obsessive about their email, and certainly do not achieve a zero Inbox every day. But they do ensure they get to zero at least once per week. They have a healthy relationship with their Inbox and email. They delete decisively, file what they need to keep in a simple filing system, and manage their email actions in a prioritised action list or in their calendar. The benefit - they achieve clarity about what needs their time and attention. They feel in control, and actually get their head out of their Inbox and into their more important work more of the time.

The world needs more hero's. Step up and take the challenge!


 

Posted on October 16, 2015 .

Identify your value

I recently worked with a client to help her to identify what she should be focusing her time and attention on in her new role. The role had just been created, and she had a great opportunity to really define her agenda and what she believed the key priorities to be over the next few years.

Most of us do not have such freedom or flexibility. We are often in roles where the agenda is already set, and the demands of the organisation shape what we spend our time on. So how do you make sure you are spending at least some of your time doing the work that really makes a difference, and at the same time, really motivates and inspires you?

While you may not have full control over the results you are expected to achieve, you can take control of what you spend your time on to achieve these outcomes.

When you focus your time and attention on 'busywork' like emails or low-value meetings, you may seem busy, but in reality the wheels are spinning but you get no traction. If this type of activity is all you did, you would DISAPPOINT.

When you focus on 'business as usual' - the core activities in your job description, you meet expectations, and you SATISFY the requirements.

But when you spend at least some of your time on 'breakthrough' activities, then you EXCEED. Your positioning, profile and reputation grow in the eyes of others, and your sense of motivation increases.

Breakthrough activities are the activities that really make a difference and have an impact. These activities are levers that shift things in a significant way, and stand out to others. They could be projects, or they could be valuable deliverables like reports you have created, presentations you have delivered or conferences you have planned. They have impact and satisfaction built in, but only if they are of high quality.

Which means you need to work on them proactively, not at the last minute. Which also means you need to plan and protect time for these activities in your busy schedule.

What BREAKTHROUGH activities could you focus on over the coming month?


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Posted on June 29, 2015 .

Conscious Project Management Podcast

Colin Ellis is a veteran project manager who now helps project teams to plan and manage projects in a more conscious way. He believes that the discipline of project management has become too focused on methodologies and mechanics, and has moved away the critical element that can make or break a project - people.

It was my pleasure to interview Colin about his unique perspective and thoughts on this critical area of our work. Colin shows the way forward for managing projects in the 21st century workplace.

Posted on April 10, 2015 .

5 Ways to Remember What You Need to Do

Do you recall the trick our Grandparents used when they needed to remember something? They would tie a string around their finger. Then, when they noticed it, they would remember the thing they needed to do. Unfortunately, for this strategy to work today we would need a very large reel of string and a hundred fingers!

We have so much to remember every day, and so many things clammering for our attention. It is not surprising that some of these just slip through the cracks, or become urgent before we get to them. I believe that this is leading to increased reactivity and stress for many workers. It also means that we are less likely to have time to proactively work on the meaningful work that really makes a difference.

When it comes to capturing our activities, we often just leave the work in a pile (your Inbox is a good example) or capture it on our ‘To Do list’. When you only have a few things to do, these strategies work. Just like the string on our Grandpa’s finger. But when you have multiple competing priorities on top of a busy meeting workload and a steady flow of incoming emails, you need more robust strategies that help you to focus.

Electronic tools like MS Outlook, Lotus Notes and Google Calendar allow us to capture actions in a number of ways. These powerful scheduling tools have built-in functions designed to schedule both time-specific activities and more discretionary activities. We need to choose the right tool for the job depending on the activity, it’s deadline, and it’s importance.

Here are five ways that you can capture work using these tools so that you get the right work done at the right time:

Consideration List: Sometimes you will think of things that you should do at some stage, or you would do if you ever had time, but they are not a priority for now, this week or even this month. They are worth capturing on a ‘Consideration List’. This list should be reviewed on a weekly basis to decide if anything is worth scheduling time for this week.

Scheduled Tasks: Lots of work that comes your way needs to be done in the short to medium term, but has a loose deadline. It is worth scheduling these actions into a date-based task list. Many electronic calendar systems allow you to schedule tasks for specific days. These tasks can be scheduled roughly over your week. This helps you spread your workload and ensure that your priorities are visible and don’t slip through the cracks.

Date-Specific Tasks: Some actions need to be done on a specific day. Commitments you have made, work that is time-sensitive, critical priorities for that day. These can also be scheduled in a date-based task system, but should be highlighted in some way so that they stand out from the non-critical tasks for the day. Be highly selective with these, as less is more in this case.

Blocked-Out Task Time: Electronic tasks are generally the best way of managing task workload, as these activities are usually discretionary and need a certain amount of flexibility as your priorities change. But sometimes, a task should be locked into your calendar as blocked out time. This works best for those bigger, more complex concentration tasks. Blocking it out in your calendar will protect your time and reduce procrastination.

Meeting & Appointments: Probably the most time-specific activity you will schedule is a meeting. Meetings are very specific when it comes to when they need to be done as other people are involved. We need to choose an exact time and schedule it to ensure we all turn up at the same time. These of course, should be scheduled in your calendar.

As you see, there is a continuum of action tools, ranging from very loose to very tight. They work together, allowing you to capture and schedule a range of activities that will help you to work in a focused but flexible way.

Or, you can just buy some string and tie it around your finger.…
 

Watch out for the Procrastination Pixie

My most important priority today was my hardest priority. I had set myself the task of starting a complex whitepaper, which held enormous value but needed some deep thinking and writing. I had a couple of meetings in the morning, and a few emails to send, but had blocked some time over the lunch period to work on writing.

Because I had blocked the time out in my calendar, I stopped what I was doing when the alert popped up, opened the document, and set to writing. The first thing I needed was a quote to open the paper. As I went to search for a good quote to use, the Procrastination Pixie came to visit!

Forty-five minutes later, I found myself on the floor putting together an office stool I had bought over the weekend. As I screwed in the final leg, I realised that this is not what I should be doing. I was meant to be writing the whitepaper! How on earth had this happened?

As I sat there, I ran through what I had done in the last forty-five minutes. It seems that on looking for the quote, I saw an online post worth reading, and commenting on. I then realised I needed a coffee, so I popped next door for a takeaway. I then made a quick call, and on hanging up I decided to put together my new stool. All without once being aware that I was procrastinating. It was like a Procrastination Pixie had come and taken over my mind, and mischievously diverted my attention to less important things. I was honestly gobsmacked at how easily I had been diverted from my most important task.

How often does the Pixie come to you?

Procrastinating is human, and happens to all of us. The most productive people catch themselves and manage the procrastination.

If you want to avoid procrastinating about hard, complex or distasteful work, try the following:

  • Schedule this work in your calendar and be specific about when you will do it

  • Work for short periods on complex work. They reckon 45 minutes is optimal

  • Turn off interruptions – email, phone and people (book a meeting room and hide)

  • Recognise the work you are likely to procrastinate about and actively commit to staying focused

  • If you catch yourself being diverted, stop the other work immediately and get back on task

This is a true story. It happened today. Many of you will be pleased to know that I am human!
 

Regards,

Dermot

Posted on March 19, 2015 .

The power of a weekly plan

If you are a busy executive, you probably spend some time planning the week ahead. Most of us have a Friday or Sunday ritual that helps us get our head around what the week in front of us has in store. Unfortunately, because we are so busy, most of us don’t spend enough time on our weekly plan. There is an irony here, as this is exactly the reason we should stop and spend time planning – because we are so busy!

I have worked with several executives recently helping both themselves and their EA to design a powerful weekly plan. At the senior level, if there was one lever that I could use to boost productivity, it would be a solid weekly planning process shared by both an executive and their EA, or indeed their team. But it needs to go beyond the one-dimensional planning that they are used to.

Weekly planning serves several functions. It firstly gets you up to date. It is a time to review anything that is outstanding or incomplete, and make decisions on how to move these things forward. Secondly, it is a chance to get organised for the week ahead, and ensure that your time and attention is well spent on the right activities.

Thirdly, it should allow you to look ahead and anticipate what is coming down the track at you. Lastly, and most importantly, it provides time to reflect on the bigger picture and plan time for the important activities that are going to make a real difference.

So, if you want to reduce your stress levels, increase your focus and get set for a truly productive week, try a 4 dimensional planning process:

  1. Look back at last week and get up to date
  2. Look forward to next week and get organised
  3. Look ahead several weeks and anticipate
  4. Look up at the big picture and make sure you are working on the right stuff

 
Regards,

Dermot


Getting traction with complex tasks

A recent question from a participant in our Productive Leadership program got me thinking about a solution to managing more the complex tasks on our list. You see, he had a fairly busy meeting workload, but was pretty organised and managed to stay on top of most of his simple tasks all the same. What was killing him were the few more complex pieces of work in his role that he invariably procrastinated about and left until the last minute. These tasks were highly valuable but also highly stressful.

Every task, simple or complex, has three stages – Deadline, Planning and Execution. A simple task, like sending an email or making a phone call, will usually roll all three of these stages into one. With a simple email, we try to get to the task before it is overdue. We then open the email, have a think about what we need to say, write it and then send it. The deadline, planning and execution all happen at once.

Complex tasks, such as preparing for a presentation, writing a report or finalising a budget are a different beast. With complex work, there is a much greater risk that we will procrastinate, leave it until the last minute, and run out of time. This drags down the quality of the task and increases the stress levels. It also puts pressure on those around you if you then need to pass it downstream at the last minute.

So, next time you have a complex task to manage, break it down into the following three stages, and manage each with the appropriate tool in your action management system.

Deadline – Make it visible
Even though this is the final stage, it is where we should start. Clarify the deadline, and make it visible in your schedule. All Day Events in your calendar are a great way to show upcoming deadlines. As deadlines are zero duration milestones rather than activities, we just need to be able to have them in our line of sight, and be aware as we draw close to them. It is a good idea to review your upcoming deadlines as a part of your weekly planning and make sure you are still on track.

Planning – Create a thumbnail sketch
Now that the deadline is in place, we need to come right back to now and start planning the task. Schedule no more than 20 minutes to roughly outline the scope of the task – quickly brainstorm the key components, stages or points involved. This is what I call a thumbnail sketch. It is a very rough outline, and it will help you to estimate how much work is involved, and clarify your thinking about how to approach the task. This planning stage can simply be scheduled as a task in your action list, and it should be prioritised to happen as soon as possible.

Execution – Block out time
Once you have roughly planned the task, decide when you will protect some time for the actual work. You should now have a better feel for how much time will be needed. This is best blocked out in your calendar, ideally far enough ahead of the deadline to provide some wriggle room. Other things will invariably come up, and it always takes longer than we thought. Plan for this. When you block this time out, protect it and view it as being as important as any meeting in your schedule. The beauty of having created the thumbnail sketch before you do the work is that your mind will begin working on the task in the time between planning and execution.

So, what complex tasks are you procrastinating on right now?

If you follow this process, you will find that things are rarely quite as complex as we first thought!!

Plan your week with a ROAR

We are all busy, but that should not mean that we do not have time to plan. Taking some time out each week to plan will ensure you not only get more work done, but that you will be getting the right work done.

Dermot walks through the ROAR weekly planning process, and even has three different versions depending on how strapped for time you are!

Click here to download the ROAR Weekly Planning template

Posted on February 19, 2015 .