Posts Tagged ‘productivity’
My client, Lisa does not know how to stop. Lisa is a 39-year old university professor. Like most professors, when it is time to prepare her student’s reading list, she reviews hundreds of books and academic journal articles. That was overwhelming enough, but to ‘keep up’ now, she also has to go through videos, podcasts, and blogs. “I’m afraid I’ll miss something really vital to their education”, Lisa says. She researches and prepares, prepares and researches until the final deadline for submitting the reading list looms close and large. “I have no idea when to stop because I have no idea when I’m done,” Lisa confesses.
It’s a common complaint these days. In the era of endless, information is infinite, but time is not. Time is finite. So at some point quantity has to be qualified. What is a sufficient quantity to sift thru? How much is enough to qualitatively satisfy a need? It’s increasingly difficult to know. Too Big To Know by David Weinberger traces the history of facts as they evolved from scarce, isolated foundations of finite bodies of knowledge to the present day where knowledge and facts are common, group-oriented, and readily available. The concept of rare has gone away in an era of endless when things are equally and endlessly available.
If you find it difficult to stop, here are some tactics you can use:
- Practice the Law of Diminishing Returns which is the tendency for a continuing effort toward a particular goal to decline in effectiveness after a certain level of result has been achieved. Or, as a client in Houston once put it, Stop when the lemonade ain’t worth the squeeze.
My client Debra is an HR director for a law firm. Her job is to find qualified prospective attorneys to work for the firm. The longer she keeps looking, the more the open post continues to go unfulfilled. The other attorneys have to add more work to their plate to cover for the unfulfilled position, and the as-yet unhired attorney’s contributions are forestalled. Debra says, “It’s just not worth it to the company for me to keep going and going and going with my recruitment efforts.”
- Spell ‘done’ out ahead of time. Debra decided to prospect the 10 best candidates as a result of her best efforts exerted over 30 days. Any more effort applied actually diminishes the return.
- Keep in mind that progress towards closure is a quality of life issue. It is good for your mental health to complete things. David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame rightly observes that, “When we spend a lot of psychic energy on half-closed loops, on things left undone, we waste time and energy that could be put to better use elsewhere.”
- Ask yourself, outloud, what are the 2 things I can do right now to bring this task/project to closure, to get it off my to do list? It might be to make a call, find something on the web, get a question answered, or take even a small action towards closure.
- Close before you open especially in the morning. Finishing something early in the day builds a “meaning reservoir”, an expert on obsessive behavior once told me. Completing just one thing early in the day can give meaning to the entire day.
- Focus on one or two big wins for the day.
A day is still 24 hours long yet there are features of modern work that seem to bend a day a little bit farther over its natural edges, a phenomena I call ‘work creep.” In the name of greater productivity, there are out-of-office conference calls, weekend team building trips, shifts to cover, and time zone differences. ‘ Technology has made it possible to work without an office, without a supervisor, and without regard for time of day. In the absence of absolute clarity about the boundaries of work, the line between our working lives and our non-working life is blurred, and discretionary time is disappearing altogether. 62% of at-work email users check work email over the weekend. 50% check email on vacation. In 2009 Americans threw away 465 million vacation days. And 40-hours is rapidly becoming the new part-time. Add to this mix, the fact that we are in a deep recession where the expectation of working longer hours is the norm, and its no wonder we find it hard to find the time to anything but work.
As a professional organizer and time management expert, I tell my clients that I will find them more time, but not to invest into more work. Instead it will be leisure time that we will actually put into their schedule to rest, relax and recreate. Here is where that time can be found:
- Use Skpe, web-based meeting programs, and phone to limit face-to-face meetings.
- Agendize business phone calls, all meetings, and interactions. Write a teeny agenda of what to cover, ask, solve or do at those interactions.
- Delegate to the machines. Taking time to learn how to optimally use your smartphone, tablet, web tools, software and apps can be a huge return on investment in terms of time you save.
- Limit social media usage to a hour at a time. Set an alarm. Get up, walk, and then before setting the alarm for the next hour, decide if you can knock off.
- Schedule leisure, rest, relaxation, and every other kind of downtime. It may sound counter-intuitive to your sense of spontaneity and fun but you’ll find you have the best of both worlds: spontaneity and planned non-work time.
Need more help? Contact a professional organizer who can show you how to manage your time to combat work creep.
In a world of endlessly available, unlimited information, it is not so easy to know when a job has been completed and has come to closure. If you’re doing research, how do you know when you’re done especially when there is so much more information ‘out there’ that could be incorporated into your findings? How in-depth or thorough does a report need to be before it can be considered done? Unlike other kinds of work, knowledge work requires judgment and experience to determine when you have reached the point of diminishing returns where additional work will not add enough value to justify the cost, effort and time. Closure has come to mean not so much when something is ‘finished” as when the tendency for a continuing effort toward a particular goal actually causes effectiveness to decline after a certain level of result has been achieved.
My client Marsha is in HR, charged with ‘prospecting for the best legal talent available’, one of those knowledge work kind of assignments that can go on forever. “I never knew when enough was enough. I attended recruitment fairs, interacted on social media, prospected at law school events…there just seemed no end to the work.” Meanwhile, all that time prospecting for a new attorney meant the open post continued to go unfilled, the other attorneys had to add more work to their plate, and the yet unhired attorney’s contributions was forestalled. “It’s just not worth it to the company for me to keep trying to find the perfect candidates. I’m done when I prospect what I think are the best 25 candidates a month.”
Another factor that affects closure (finishing or completing something) is the extent to which one is taken off task by an interruption or distraction Each day a typical office employee checks e-mail 50 times and uses instant messaging 77 times, according to RescueTime, a firm that develops time-management and tracking software. So defend your right to concentrate. If you truly need to close the door, turn off the cell, and leave email unattended for 3 hours, do it. A recent Harvard University study of 600 managers found that the most significant factor in their perception of their best work days were the days when they made progress, the days they were able to move work forward to closure. Their findings are in a new book called The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer. I have a client who puts yellow crime scene tape across her cubby office opening. She doesn’t have a door but the message is clear. Don’t disturb her till the tape comes down. Many companies have a “no devices in this meetings” policy. Find a place to hide where you can concentrate.
The point of productivity is to generate a ‘leisure dividend.’ When you are productive you do more in less time leaving you time left over for not working, for having fun or just relaxing. At least that’s the theory. Some people are naturally productive. They can prioritize instantly, integrate new tasks on the run, and finish what they start. Productivity tools such as mobile devices with multiple functions, apps, and cloud-based tools can increase productivity. The problem is people tend to reinvest their leisure dividend into more work instead of into leisure. Only 38% of Americans take all of their vacation days. 72% check into the office during their vacations. You recall Clement Clark Moore’s Twas the Night Before Christmas? Remember the line “. ..and mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap. Not, “…had just settled down for a long winters nap”, but instead “…had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.” We need to rest our brains. All that information we are getting? It needs to be digested, it needs to sink in, be reflected upon and that requires rest.
How do you measure personal productivity? Some people are taking a crack at tracking all their time using a variety of apps. I think tracking our time holds some value but the time is takes to do all that tracking might be using up any benefit of time gained being productive in the first place.
If you are someone who strives for productivity but has difficulty realizing your leisure dividend, try doing the following
- Take whatever vacation you have coming to you. Scientists have found that it takes at least 3 days to relax, and to feel you are on vacation, so take at least 4 days.
- Full engagement in reading is also a good investment of your leisure divident. In-depth, hard copy book reading is a multi-sensory experience involving motor, visual, materiality, and focus that helps us be engaged but relaxed.
- Exercise promotes weight control, lowers stress, controls cholesterol, and supports a good night’s sleep making it a top choice for investing your leisure dividend.
- Sleep a little more or learn to nap.
My client Ann needs a new car. Armed with a rough budget and some preferences, Ann went online. She visited the best car buying websites, jumped into chat rooms, and used social media to find out what people thought of various vehicles. She checked CraigsList, and downloaded CarPerks to her iPhone (her 100th app!). Once on this research-train, it was hard for Ann to stop. According to the Information Overload Research Group (who knew?!) 53% of people surveyed believe that less than half the information they receive is valuable/useful. Still we find it hard to resist loading ourselves up on information. Not a great screen-reader, or adept at cut and paste pieces of webpages into files, Ann printed out reams of information. “I can’t be sure the information is in there,” Ann said pointing to her head. What began as a virtual search quickly turned into a seemingly unending tangible research project. When I visited Ann for our time management session she’d been at the car buying project for 3 months. Dan, her husband is supportive, but frustrated. “I know buying a new car is a big decision. But I’d gladly trade-in her thoroughness for getting the job over with.”
In an era of unlimited information, the pursuit of thoroughness is more than time-consuming – it’s impossible. There is always another opinion to listen to or another piece of information to obtain. I believe “done” needs a make-over. Here’s what I think The New Done needs to be:
- It’s not about you. Finishing a task is not about your standard of completeness, but rather about meeting other people’s expectations or needs. Pleasing a spouse with making a final decision goes a longer way than making the perfect decision which doesn’t exist anyway.
- Learn to live with your decision. Let’s say Ann narrowed her search to 2 cars and chose one over the other. Chances are great that there is so little difference between them that either choice would be one she could live with.
- Coming through on your obligations and commitments enhances your relationships. Perfectionism and being overly scrupulous might give you a good reputation for being thorough but you’ll risk injuring your relationships.
- If you think the stimulation of the hunt for perfect answers feels good, wait till you experience closure!
Organizationally-speaking, The New Done requires a few good practices (I’m not much of a fan of “best practices”. The question, ‘best for whom?’ always stops me cold in my mental tracks.)
- Corralling information is key. Putting it in a form for easy use, retrieval and re-use such as a spreadsheet or a dedicated file is important.
- Impose a time limit especially if the task had no deadline or due date. Go for perfect timing rather than perfect information/solutions/ answers.
- Ask someone else to judge if you are done or not.
- Know exactly what it is people want from you, otherwise you won’t know if you’ve satisfied them.
“He who knows that enough is enough always has enough” – Lao-Tzu
It wasn’t a scientific survey. The results would never hold up under academic scrutiny. But when 23 people are asked the same question and 100% of their responses are qualitatively the same, it’s safe to conclude you’re onto something. That’s what happened to me when I discovered what I call “The Starbucks Effect”™. I carried a clipboard to make me look official, and color copies of the covers of my books proving that I’m a published author. With a big smile, I approached people in Starbucks who seemed to be doing work. “Hi, I’m sorry to interrupt. I’m Judith Kolberg, a local author of books about getting organized. I’m doing research for my next book about how people get their work done. My survey takes less than 6 minutes. Mind if I ask you a few questions?” Here’s what I asked: “Is Starbucks a good place to get work done?” To a person, each person answered, “Yes, Starbucks is a good place to get work done.” Why? Being away from the distractions of the office or home was a popular response. And the chocolate/caffeine rush figured into most people’s explanation of why Starbucks is better than the office or home. “It’s kind of noisy”, I said commented over the roar of the espresso machine, clatter of cups and din of voices. “Doesn’t the noise and commotion bother you?” I asked. “No” or “I don’t even notice it”, everyone said.
Productivity, simply understood as planning a task and carrying it out, is a huge challenge for many people. I’m always trying to figure out the reasons why some people pull it off more than others. The Starbucks Effect is one key. It works like this. The external noise and commotion cancels out internal distractions so that a person can concentrate on the task at hand. The more scientific explanation for this is ‘white noise’. In other words, some people can’t take in what’s going on around them, listen to what’s going on in their head, and perform a task at the same time. The mind cannot do all three. Something has got to go. Apparently, the noise level at Starbucks is goldilocks – not too high, not too low…just right to not be distracting itself. It cancels out internal distractions such as random thoughts, ideas, worries, mental to-do list and self-talk so that you can do the task at hand: study, balance a checkbook, read a report, fill out a form, or write an article. I’d always thought the best conditions for getting work done are a quiet spot, without a lot of background commotion going on. For some people it turns out that a quiet environment devoid of activity is itself distracting. It lets those internal distractions run wild. If you are a person who finds it challenging to execute tasks from end-to-end, to finish things, or you’re dissatisfied with your level of productivity, maybe the Starbucks Effect can work in your favor. It doesn’t have to be Starbucks. I have a client who does his taxes at the airport!
“Getting organized”….just the sound of it can sound daunting. What’s worse: dusty new piles of stuff you probably don’t know what to do with, pulled out of your closet that might take you hours to sort through, or your closet stuffed to the max that at least has a visual familiarity to you? Put that way, it probably doesn’t make much sense to get that closet organized.
Too often organizing is thought of as what you will lose – your stuff, time you could be spending on something else, familiarity, etc. But if you think of getting organizing as a creative process rather than a disruptive process, it changes the terms of the problem.
- Think of yourself as creating jobs. Donate that stuff to Goodwill and the income goes to job-creation programs for poor youth.
- Give those cool craft items to your local elementary school and you’ll create fun for kids, relief for an art teacher pinched on supplies, and goodwill as a community member.
- Creating a little cash by having a yard sale could mean the difference between a dollar menu dinner and sitting down at a restaurant.
- And who couldn’t possibly use the creation of a tax-write off.
- Create a reputation as a “giver”, as a generous person who passes on items of value to others with no strings attached (i.e. you can’t get miffed if they turn around and give that item away.)
- Create space – lovely, clear, unmitigated space.
I promise you if you pull everything out of your closet you will experience a period of deconstruction and a bit of confusion. It’s normal for things to get more disorganized before you pass through creation and onto organization. Just knowing that in advance can be a big help. If you hire a professional organizer to help, they’ll keep you motivated, help you make a plan for getting rid of stuff you don’t want, support you in your decision-making process, and some of them will even cart stuff away in their vehicle so you can have that deep out-of-sight, out-of-mind satisfying feeling you so deserve.
Organizing as a Creative Process In the Office
The benefits of organizing as a creative process pays off big time in the office. When you organize your office, you create:
- a true picture of the active, incomplete work that needs to be finished
- a better estimate of the time it will take to do the work that’s been hidden by clutter
- recapturing time that might otherwise be lost looking for missing papers
- cost-effective use of your office space
- the security of knowing sensitive information is not just lying around
- more welcome place for co-workers and clients
- a productive environment for administrative assistants, team members and others
- a green reputation as you trot pounds of paper to the recycling bin
- grateful co-workers who will thank you for finally returning things to them
- filing…okay so maybe that’s not such a good outcome, but hey it’s better than not knowing where anything is!