A Simple Way to Get More Done

If you want to be more productive, the key is simple. Simple is the key.

People are often surprised at how much I am able to accomplish and yet how responsive I am when something new needs to be completed. Here is my secret to being a top performer: I don’t multi-task.

The idea of multi-tasking has become so ubiquitous and abused it is practically the butt of its own joke. People who accomplish a lot do not do so by spinning from task to task, with imaginary octopus arms, inching each project forward a little at a time until everything is complete.

Top producers simplify their work. They edit ruthlessly the work that is unnecessary and they politely say “no” to work that does not move them toward their goals. Top producers instead work on a single task until it is done and then they move to the next task and work on that one until it is done, and then they move on to the next task and… you get it.

I watch so many leaders burn themselves out at the altar of, “I have to get it all done and it all has to get done by me”, rather than taking the approach of, “What is the goal and what is the most efficient way to reach it?” Smart leaders look for ways to move on to the most important stuff. “What can I let go of so I can focus on what is really important? Am I the only person that can do this? If so, why? Can somebody else do it, and get it done, even if it is not to my perfect standards?”

For me, I saw my productivity transform when I embraced minimalism as a lifestyle. Being a minimalist forces you to think about the smallest number of things that bring the greatest return on value. As a result, I began working to simplify every area of my life (and I am still working at it) and the results have made it clear to me that doing less is one of the best ways to get more done.

I think corporations, teams, and even personal relationships suffer from complexity when a dose of simplicity can change everything.

It makes sense. We stretch ourselves too thin.

We take on 12 assignments at a time, which means our mental resources, our attention, and our efforts are divided by 12. I try to never have more than 2 or 3 focal points at one time on my docket. More than that and I find myself slowing down the thing I am doing because I am thinking about all the things I need to do next.

How many half-finished projects are on your desk? How many projects have you contributed your labor to, only to watch them disappear into the ether because other “more important” projects came up? (Well, why weren’t you working on the most important project from the beginning?)

That is the easiest measure of time being wasted for the sake of wasting time. Or put another way, workers work to fill the time required to be in the office, rather than working to do important work. The reason for this is simple, by the way. Workers fill time because they know the reward for work done well is to be piled up with more (busy) work. If your people can accomplish a task in 4 hours but still have to fill an 8-hour work day rather than be set free to go home or do what they want, you better believe that 4-hour task will take 8 and a half hours.

The reward for good work should not be more (less interesting) work, but rather more time and freedom. Google figured this out years ago with their famous “20% rule“.

From a minimalist perspective, the world over-complicates productivity. Ironically, productivity is over-complicated in the name of efficiency! “I’m a great multi-tasker,” potential hires will tell me during an interview. That is a sure sign to me they are not good at being productive.

Nobody needs great multi-taskers. We need great simplifiers.

Share

Why Do You Have to Work THERE?

I look back at each day and figure out one life lesson I learned. I share each of those lessons on this blog. Here is today’s lesson…

*********

I used to run a successful sales team. When I moved to Tampa, I had to give up my job and find new work. While in that position, I had to hold back the promotion of one of my managers and risk losing one of the company’s best team members because they did not live in the district they were applying to manage.

Many companies cling to archaic work paradigms, such as physical presence=results, and miss the big picture (which is results=results).

The company could have promoted that manager (the manager did earn a promotion to my position after I moved away). The company could have kept me as well. They simply chose not to. It worked out great for me. I’m not complaining, just making a point:

It is difficult for a company to find extraordinary talent. It is NOT difficult for extraordinary talent to find a company. There is always work for talented people. The only question is whether talented people will choose to work for YOU.

I am happy my situation worked out the way it did–I have another great job now but I never understood why it had to be that way.

This week, I watched another leader nearly pass up an amazing candidate for because the person did not live in the area. I was dumbfounded, but still, I recognize that most leaders think in a very “local” sense. They believe remote work is a privilege to be earned and distributed to those “worthy”. This is exactly backwards in my opinion. The privilege, for a leader, is having the best person possible on their team. Personally, I wouldn’t care if my team members live on the moon as long as they figure out how to do excellent work.

Being location-ambivalent means I have a tremendous advantage over my competitors. I can pull applicants from all over the world, not just the 20 mile radius from the office.

If you think about it, most non-entry level work today is “knowledge work”–reporting, strategy, and communication rather than manual labor–flipping burgers or unloading trucks (Both things which obviously require physical presence).

We have technology to free knowledge-based workers–Skype, Hangouts, Slack, GroupMe, email, FaceTime, SmartSheets, Dropbox, and of course, the phone. For example, I can just as effectively run a sales team in Michigan from Tampa as I could from Michigan. With video chatting, email, instant messaging, collaborative work folders, and screen sharing, everything is at my disposal virtually that was there physically.

Yet we cling to the notion that communication is only effective face to face.

There are many ways to have a stronger, more agile workforce built from a broader talent pool. There are many ways to retain your most talented people while maximizing their freedom and ability to innovate and drive transformation.

Sadly, technology and change is scary to many otherwise excellent leaders.

To me, it is a shame to see a talented person looked over for a leader’s lack of vision, but at least I take heart knowing they will undoubtedly find great work wherever they end up. Luckily, I was able to convince the leader who almost tossed out a great applicant to take a second look. Hopefully, when you are faced with the same quandary, you will think twice, too.

 

Share

Office Spaced

Today’s Lesson: If you want to innovate, invite the Weird.

*****

Traditional office spaces suck.

Cubicle farms, desks with monitors, filing cabinets, pen cups, rolling desk chairs, grayish carpeting, etc… It is all designed to inculcate boredom and efficiency. At the same time, companies and leaders are chanting mantras of innovation, empowerment, work-life balance, transparency, etc…

These are opposing forces. Innovation does not come from maximizing efficiency and following cookie-cutter practices. Innovation is almost, by definition, messy and creative and sometimes a little destructive.

It is easy for leaders to say things like, “We want our employees to have fun and enjoy their work” but how would your top leaders react if your employees were truly embracing their creativity?

Look at your office space. Does it invite creativity? Your people might be weird but does their work space invite them to embrace their weirdness? Are they encouraged (through more than words) to pull forth the creative sides of themselves and blur the lines between “work” and “fun”?

For those companies still not ready to leave the office behind altogether and become a fluid, adaptable, remote work team operating more like a swarm than an old battleship, start by re-thinking your environment. What is weird about it? How can you encourage collaboration as creative play? How can you maximize people colliding (and thus ideas colliding) while also respecting quiet time and space for individual contemplation?

How can you make the “weird” normal and celebrate it?

Would it be weird if you walked by an office and saw a company vice-president sitting in lotus-pose on top of her desk, meditating?

Would it be weird if you were in a meeting where the notes and ideas were being jotted down in multi-colored crayons and pictures instead of words?

Would it be weird if two grown adults went running by your office after you heard someone shout, “Tag! You’re it!”

Would it be weird if you saw someone sprawled out on the floor, head on a pillow, taking a 15-minute nap in their office?

We do not associate any of those things to productivity but I challenge you to consider play, creativity, and rest to be the essence of productivity. The most innovative ideas of our time have not come from project management spreadsheets and TPS reports. They have come as flashes of insight, often in someone’s garage while they are tinkering, or as a result of a conversation in a bar, or having just awakened from a dream, or simply from quiet time in the bathroom (we all know we do some of our best stinking thinking there).

The obvious place to start encouraging the weird is in your office space itself. What would make your team excited to visit their work space each day? What can we do, as leaders, to have our team go home and talk about work and share their passion with their friends and on their social media (as opposed to sharing all the negative parts)?

Here are 3 easy ways to start. You certainly do not have to adopt this list but it might get your inner weirdness to perk up.

1. Look at the obvious and already successful model for inviting productivity and collaboration: Starbucks (or any local coffee-house). Starbucks is probably not the first place that comes to mind when you think “weird” but it was the very fact that they were weird that made them famous. A coffee-house is weird in a good way. It has an open floor plan with often kitschy or eccentric local art and decor that invites conversation.

A coffee-house is a central place where people gather and chat while also working. There are tabletops of varying sizes for both group and individual work, couches centered around coffee tables, mellow upbeat music, coffee, tea, wi-fi, and plenty of places to both plug-in and unplug, not to mention outdoor seating. How many of your team members would appreciate some outside time on a warm, breezy day? With laptops, tablets, and smartphones at our disposal, why does work still happen in dreary, dark corners as if it is something shameful, to be hidden away from the light of day?

2. Replace leather office chairs and fake mahogany tables in conference rooms with end tables surrounded by bean bag chairs and Indian-style sitting pillows. Make sure each chair is a different color or type than the rest. If sitting on the floor is too icky for you, then go with high top tables and bar stools. Just get away from looking like a bunch of lawyers discussing politics.

3. If removing most office walls is out of the budget, consider painting them different colors. Have a red wall, a blue wall, a yellow wall. Splash other colors on them. Encourage your team to write their favorite lines of lyrics or poetry on the walls or paint pictures on them if they are artistically inclined. Free, local art! Create an environment both your team and your clients will go home talking about.

There are plenty of ways to make work better for everyone. Go nuts with embracing the weirdness secretly residing in your people, begging to be let out.

Make a nap room full of nothing but big durable pillows.

Make sure there are chairs, pencils, crayons, and swaths of paper or writing boards in the hallways for spontaneous meetings.

Instead of motivational posters, decorate the halls with dry erase boards to capture ideas or share stories as people walk by.

Play games. Instead of a project update meeting every Monday morning, how about a board game meeting every Monday morning?

Make your office pet friendly. How many employees would love to bring their dogs or cats to work? It is definitely a hassle but worth the joy on most faces when the pets come to visit their area (those who are allergic can avoid the pets or be told upfront that the office is pet friendly, or they can work outside).

 

You get the idea.

If you want innovation, start by inviting the space to be innovative. If you want boring, predictable, drab, mediocre results, then by all means make your business look like every other business… and you will be just like them.

 

Share

Who Are They Talking To?

Today’s Lesson: Your team talks about you and it is not all pleasant. Get over it.

*****

After overcoming a hefty amount of fear (and continuing to overcome it), I introduced a group chat tool to a team of remote workers. There was some hesitation from the executive team (who “grew up”, so to speak, in the traditional work environment) and I give them credit for embracing their fears and moving forward anyway.

They said…

“…But these people don’t talk to each other now. What if they start talking to each other and finding out some of them are paid differently or have special exceptions made?”  They already assume not everyone is paid exactly the same and life is not always perfectly fair. As leaders, we are thrusting our heads into the sand and pretending the world does not exist if we really think our employees never talk to each other. (After I enrolled the employees, it turns out a few of them were already using the app anyway!)

“…But what if they say bad stuff about the company? Can we shut them down?”  They already say bad stuff about the company (some of them). The difference is, you have no insight at all into what they are saying now. By being involved in the conversation, you might have a chance to correct misinformation or bad attitudes, or prevent both altogether.

“…But what if somebody posts something inappropriate or uses bad language?” How do you handle that now, if someone does the same thing in an email or at a meeting in front of everyone? Why would you do anything different here?

“But… but… but…” But it is time to stop pretending we work in 1950. People will talk, collaborate, and occasionally misbehave whether or not you are watching. At least now, you might have some input. Even if you do not, you are naive to think your people can not lambaste you or your company now on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or their own blogs, or just by texting or emailing their friends. You are plain crazy to think you can isolate them from a world of mass communication. Your choice here is to embrace technology and leverage it to become a better leader/ team/ company or sit idly while your people and your competitors embrace it.

Your people are already talking. The question is, if they are not talking to you, then who are they talking to?

 

Share

3 Ways Leaders Sabotage Companies

Today’s Lesson: Know what you want. Know how you will get there. Treat your best people best.

*****

There are 3 ways I see leaders sabotage the success of their company:

1. Leaders want results, but do not know what “results” are (and do not have a legitimate path or plan to achieve them). Every company I know of has a goal, that trickles down as a never-ending demand, to “increase profits”. There is nothing wrong with making more profit except “make more profits” is a wish, not a goal. Cutting expenses, for example, would seem to help increase profit for a company but if the line-items being shaved are at the expense of employee morale, saving those pennies can actually undermine the goal of  profitability.

I once worked for a company that required a request form be completed when employees wanted office supplies, including standard disposable pens. Employees, of course, began bringing their own pens and other supplies to avoid the rigamarole. The policy worked. The company did save a few bucks, but also many employees eventually left for better companies that valued team members more than they valued disposable pens. No one cited the request form as a reason for leaving but former employees still bring the story up when they get together.

Results drive profitability; pens do not.

Leaders can fail at understanding which results are being driven or even how to identify a result. A result, I say, is the outcome (positive or negative) of actions taken to reach an objective. Knowing the results a company or team is striving to bring to life helps your team know if they are winning the game. So the first rule to defining a result is, there must be an end in sight or a way to know the game is over.

A desired result must be attainable, realistic, and tied to a goal. Imagine if marathon runners were told to run faster and faster (the desired result being to reach the finish line) but were never told where the finish line is or what path to take. They would lose steam quickly, not knowing when to tap their energy reserves to push forward. Some would run the wrong direction. Some would stop too often while others would never know if they should ever take a break. Many would quit after a short time. Team members need to know how to win, and what winning looks like.

A result must also be actionable. Running a marathon is obviously actionable. You strap your shoes on and run. But what about selling more widgets? The obvious action is not always present. A good leader reduces the workload and narrows the vision of the goal until the next action is so clear it seems stupid to do anything else. Telling your marathoners to “run that way really fast until I tell you to stop” is not clear. Pointing out the fastest, most direct route to the finish line, noting where a team should be at what point in the race, and encouraging them to move forward when they are tired (keeping updates on where the goal is, how far they have come, and how close they are) creates an actionable map to success.

The criteria for a result, then, is: it must have an end; it must be attainable, realistic, and tied to a goal, and you must be able to take clear action to achieve it.

What kind of map does your organization provide when asking for (or demanding) results?

 

2. Leaders have goals that are not actually goals. I have yet to come across a high-performing team that has met its primary objective. As my ROWE friends will tell you, many leaders and business owners operate under an archaic notion that the appropriate reward for work done well… is more work.

If you do not have a resting spot or reward zone for your high performers when they achieve results (which presumes the results are defined, reachable, and actionable), then your team is in jeopardy. Your true goal as a leader at that point has become simply to burn out your best people–to drain every ounce of effort from your top team members until they finally give up (and become middle or bottom performers), move up (being promoted so they can start the cycle over) or move on (to another career altogether). If that is where you are headed, then that is a goal worth re-thinking.

Many leaders I meet believe that “More” is itself a goal. “Our goal this year,” they say, “is to do even More sales than last year”. I challenge this by asking, “When is ‘more’… ‘enough’?”. Rather than create a goal for your team of “increase profit and reduce expenses”, define the terms. Set a profit goal of 30 million dollars and provide regular updates on which team members are helping most and how close you are to the goal as a team. Even better, add a clear incentive: “If we reach 30 million dollars in revenue by September 1st, the top 10% of our employees as judged by (X metric–widget sales, maybe, or customer return rate, etc.) will receive a one-time bonus check of $4,080 (or a two dollar-per-hour raise paid out in October if the goal is hit by September 1st). Does your team know what the stakes are and what the payoff for winning is? Perhaps most importantly, are the stakes and payoff commensurate to the effort you are asking of your team?

 

3. Leaders force top performers to work in the same cookie-cutter rule set as bottom performers, but continue to expect top performance. One of the biggest fallacies in work culture is that everything has to be fair. All workers have to follow the same rules, the same way, or you will be making exceptions all the time. The problem with this should be blatantly obvious, yet nearly every company institutes this erroneous idea to a fault. If every employee were the same and every work rule and practice were always the same, then results would always be the same… but they never are. Some weeks or months are more profitable than others; some employees are better at some tasks than others.

Leaders often refuse to acknowledge the reason “fair” does not work is because some employees are better than others. Go ahead and pick your cup off the floor–I said it and it is true. Some employees are better than others. If you prefer more politically correct phrasing, you can trade that for, “some employees provide greater value to the organization”.

I remember my first day working for a consulting firm that hired me for my innovative ideas on how to achieve the company’s vision and bring their mission statement and values to life. I watched the leaders of the company give a 3-hour power-point presentation to a large group. Afterwards they asked what I thought. I said, “I would get rid of the Power-point presentation or reduce the number of slides to 10 or less and remove most of the bullet points in favor of eye-catching pictures.” I was told the power-point has to stay as it is and I needed to learn their way instead of create my own. Although I gained invaluable experience, I did not last long with that employer because I was not a good fit for their cookie-cutter role. Within only a few months, they realized they did not know what to do with me. In the end, I lost a great team and they lost one of their greatest advocates and a committed employee… that might have become a great employee.

Effective leaders, I think, are effective because they know the distinction between a goal, a result, and a wish (a result, as stated previously, must exist in time and space–that is, a result is the measurable end of a cause/effect relationship in reality). A goal, on the other hand, is the desired end sum of results. It is what the results amount to. Great leaders understand that “More, Better, Different” are not goals (if your goal starts with any variation of those terms–“We need to make more widgets this year… we need better materials… we need a different approach…”, then you can stop there because you do not have a goal).

Goals set the end-point of results just as the finish line sets the end point of a marathon. The reward for meeting results and achieving goals should not be a never-ending raising of the bar. Top performers want a moment to enjoy their victory and look proudly over their kingdom–they need rest and a comfortable spot from which to observe their achievements once in a while.

Finally, great leaders throw out the cookie-cutter. Just because a company has done something the same way for 40 years is no justification to keep doing things the same way (“old” does not mean “effective”). Allowing your team the freedom to experiment and fail, and rewarding top-performers by treating them differently, with ever more freedom to do things their way, is a sure path to victory. Even if it seems crazy and no other person or team is doing it like your top performer… if he or she is producing the agreed-upon results and moving you toward your goal, don’t knock it; find a way to leverage it and improve it. Not forcing others to follow suit creates a little chaos, but it is exactly the right recipe for growth and innovation.

But don’t take my word for any of this. Ask your top performers what they think. Then listen, and step to the side of these 3 pitfalls.

Define results. Remember, the sum of defined results should lead to a goal. Reward your top performers with more freedom instead of more assignments.

 

Share

When Do You Call Off?

Because employees have such little control over their schedule, there seems to be an epidemic of people who never call off when they are sick. They save their “sick days” to add-on to vacations or use as mental-break days, etc.

*****

Maybe it is the vegan diet or the fact that I have no children or just plain good-eating and regular activity, but I do not feel sick often. When I get sick, it is usually because I have been exposed to someone else who should have called off but did not want to use their paid time off to rest and recuperate. Of course, this practically ensures the entire team becomes sick, production slows, moods deteriorate, and the work suffers.

I have to tip my hat to many progressive companies that either do not have a Paid Time Off policy (no one is counting the days or hours you spend in the office–they are only counting your deadlines missed or results achieved). I have seen some companies also toss sick days versus vacation days versus holidays out the window and instead offer a bucket of 27 days off to be taken at the employee’s discretion, no questions asked (as long as scheduling allows).

Either way, the way we deal with health and wellness at work is broken. Today, I am feeling ill and outside of this post, I have spent most of the day sleeping and I am looking forward to hopping back in bed.

I look forward to feeling rested and having most of my energy back tomorrow rather than dragging my illness out all week, putting in less than stellar performances.

 

Today’s Lesson: Sometimes it is fine to take a sick day. 

 

Share

Daylight Savings Time Must Die!

What would the world be like without Daylight Savings Time? Where did it come from and why do we continue the tradition? What if you could run on your own time instead of everybody else’s? (The original version of this post was published on the GoROWE website, where my friends Cali and Jody are changing the way the world works. You should check them out.)

This is a thought experiment.

I need to establish the context of the experiment before we get to the fun part, so here is a brief (but I think fascinating) history lesson about Time…

Rail Time or “-ish” Time?

Prior to 1883, people had a different relationship to Time than we do today. You could walk into a Jeweler’s Shop, for example, and ask the time. The Jeweler might have said, “It’s 2:30.” You could then cross the street to the bank and the Banker may have looked at his watch and said, “It’s 1:45 on the dot.” Then you could go next door, right away, to the Grocer and ask the time. The Grocer may have said, “Just turned 2:00.”

The Jeweler, Banker, and Grocer would all have been correct. Of course, that would seem odd today, but it was normal and not even inconvenient in 1883.

2:30-ish was good enough for most people, but after 1883, everything changed.

What happened that made people finally agree on what time it really was? Why were they so misaligned before 1883?

The Railroad happened.

Before the rail system, towns were not connected in any way that required synchronization. Time was arbitrary because people in Ohio, for example, did not need to be in sync with people from Pennsylvania. Even towns a couple of miles from each other often lived in different time zones. Most people and towns set their watch by the sun’s location in the sky. For example, when the sun was at the highest point in the sky during the day, everyone knew it was “noon”.

Depending how good your eyesight was or how well-made your town’s sun-dial was, “noon” could be anywhere between 12:00pm and 1:00pm. A town 400 miles away would have a different “noon” than your town’s noon. It did not really matter, though, because no one was on so tight a schedule that minutes counted so much as hours.

When railroads began connecting towns, however, time differences became a tremendous source of irritation for engineers. If an engineer was to leave Dayton, Ohio at “noon”, how would he know when to leave? The Jeweler would have showed up a half-hour late, the Banker 15 minutes early, and the Grocer might have just made it. Each passenger in each town was using their own approximate measurement of time.

The rails worked to create a unifying effect. Eventually (but with much resistance) people began setting their watches to “rail time”. In 1883, the railroads adopted five standard time zones to replace the multitude of local times. People reluctantly accepted “railroad time”, even though it meant “noon” was not quite when the sun was at its apex in the sky in many locales.

The Fun Part

That was the context. Here is the thought experiment:

Look forward 20 years and ask, what if work was no longer measured by where you are between the hours of such and such, Monday through Friday, but instead was only a measure of what you accomplish against your goals? Thanks to the internet, smartphones, tablets, and other technology, the world has become smaller. Businesses can reach across borders faster than the eye can blink. Our economy no longer has to be broken into time zones to facilitate stock exchange trading hours because the economy is always running. Society is global, always on, 24 hours a day, 7 days per week.

Measuring time is an arbitrary and abstract concept for most of us. Time seems to have a unique ability to expand and contract. Have you experienced an hour “fly by” when you are engaged in something meaningful or fun? Does the day “crawl” by when you are stuck doing grueling, mindless tasks that bore you?

How might our perception of Life transform if our perception of Time transformed? Would we return to a relaxed way of being, where “-ish” Time is good enough? Would we go back to telling our children to “be home before dark” or “when the street lights come on” instead of feeling forced to track them via GPS and bring them home like fugitives?

Consider this an experiment in mindfulness and vision.

How would you meet your friends to catch a movie? Would it matter if they were a half-hour late? Would you care, if you felt like you had “all the Time in the world”? Would it even bother you if the movie started late, if you were not always living on a schedule? How might a leisurely meal be, if each one stretched to two-hours of laughter and conversation?

What would it be like to never feel stuck in rush hour traffic, angry with how much “time” it takes to get home, or to work, because people are coming and going when they want instead of clogging up highways at the same times every day?

In other words, what if, after we throw our traditional, centuries-old concept of “Work” out the window, we also throw our traditional, centuries-old concept of “Time Management” out the window with it? What if we never had to worry about “springing forward” or “falling back” because Daylight Savings Time is unnecessary? Winter days have a little more sun and Summer days don’t make you feel like you are going to bed when the night has just begun…

I think it is an interesting idea.

Why don’t you think about that, and then get back to me about noon-ish?

Share