Crises are Created When the Important is Ignored

I keep coming back to lists. Complete lists. This means writing down all the things that need to be done. Whether things need doing now, next week, next month, or next year, they need to be on your list. Why? Because if they’re not on a list, there is a good chance that you will forget about them. And when that happens, you have a crisis on your hands.

If you’re “fighting fires” regularly at work, it’s not because the crisis suddenly arose (granted, sometimes there are true crises, but these are few and far between). The crisis arises because the important items that needed to get done were ignored in favour of higher priority items. So the important simmered; then boiled out of control to create a crisis.

I have been in many organizations where the attitude of dealing with undesirable (or less important) work is to “ignore it and it’ll go away.” Well, the fact is, work doesn’t go away. It comes back and keeps coming back until it’s done. That’s why it’s called “work.”

There are many advantages to keeping lists. This includes:

  • Improved memory. When you write things down, you get them out of your head. Think about this: our short-term memory can only hold about seven things at a time. With each successive “thing” kept in short-term memory, the ability to hold onto it diminishes. If you have more than seven things to do and you don’t have a list, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
  • Improved productivity. Lists help you to focus your energy on tasks without the distraction that comes with juggling to-do’s in your head. Without lists, your mind works harder than it needs to, but with lists, you gain sharper focus allowing you to improve your productivity.
  • Improved organization. Without question, this is a key reason to make lists. Lists help you plan your time so that you work more efficiently. Spending 15 minutes on planning gives you an hour of time saved.
  • Increased motivation. Lists help you to clarify goals. When this occurs, you gain motivation to work toward your goals. And each time you accomplish a goal and strike it off your list, your motivation improves even more.
  • Reduced stress. By prioritizing all of the things that need doing, you are reducing your stress by giving things a place in your life, rather than a place in your mind.

If you need a to-do list template, here’s one from Microsoft that may help (there are others, but this one is simple and free): http://office.microsoft.com/en-ca/templates/to-do-list-TC102425922.aspx. The template is an Excel spreadsheet with table columns. It uses built-in filtering controls, so you can quickly sort or filter projects by their due dates, priority, and status.

Update your list with all of your to-do’s. Then get ready to be more productive, more organized, more motivated, have better memory, and reduce your stress. I don’t know about you, but keeping lists sounds like a “no-brainer” to me. Where’s your to-do list?

Worry, Worry, Go Away, Don’t Come Back Another Day

Have you ever thought about how much more productive you become when you don’t think? You’re probably re-reading this question and asking, “Huh?” Let me clarify. When we avoid thinking about what it is that we should be thinking about, we tend to worry because we aren’t getting done the thing that we’re avoiding. So if you stop thinking about the things that you’re not doing, there is a greater likelihood that you are thinking only about the task at hand, making you more productive.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about the eight sins that impact our efficiency – defects, overproduction, waiting, non-utilized talent, transport, inventory, motion, and extra processing (“DOWNTIME”). Add to this list Sin #9 – worry. Worry is a waste that can affect your productivity dramatically.

When you worry about things, you are not in the present. When you’re not in the present, you’re not at your productive best. In addition, worrying can cause anxiety which can turn into stress. Now think about how worry is impacting not only your productivity, but your health, as well.

Worry is a negative way of thinking. It drains you of your energy, time, and capability. To be more productive and to help you stop worrying about the things you aren’t doing, prioritize, use lists, and schedule your work. Do this daily, weekly, and monthly. The more you organize your thoughts in writing, the less chance of worry seeping into your thinking.

To help you stop worrying, here are five things you may wish to try:

  1. If you’re a self-proclaimed worrier, schedule your “worry time” for the same time every day. For instance, mid-day for 30 minutes. During this time, write down all the things that you’re worried about. The power of this exercise is that it allows you to “dump” your worries to where you can see them rather than having them clog your thinking time. When you’ve reviewed and updated your list, you can stop worrying because you’ll have a chance to review the list again tomorrow. This allows some predictability for the worrier.
  2. Evaluate your worry list every day and ask: What on the list is solvable? What on the list is an imaginary problem? By imaginary, I mean the problem is not based in fact; it is based on an unknown prediction of some future event. If the problem is solvable, move it to your list of priority items and schedule time to work on the problem. If the problem is imaginary, strike it off your list. If you can’t strike it, keep returning to it until you convince yourself that the problem is imaginary and not solvable. Therefore, it needs to go!
  3. Accept uncertainty. This is probably very difficult for someone who worries, but it is a reality of life. Worrying about an unpredictable future is counterproductive, but planning for it is worth your time and effort. Plan for your future by creating a monthly or annual plan. Include all the uncertainties that you’re worried about and address how you will solve each one. Then work your plan.
  4. Use mindfulness to focus on the present. Be aware of your thoughts. When worry seeps in, turn to your list of priorities to gain perspective. Once there, you are able to turn off worry and focus on the task that you should be doing. This will make you more productive.
  5. Use your old worry lists as reminders of accomplishment. The worries that you’re able to strike off your list (that you created in point 1 above) are indications of progress. If they’re off your list, that means you are managing to turn destructive thoughts (worries) into constructive problem solving.

In addition to the above tips, try talking out your worry with a friend or colleague. Sometimes just talking about a problem provides much needed clarity that can lead to resolution.

Whatever you do, the trick is to funnel your worry to a solution and go from destructive worrying to constructive problem solving.

Workflow as Easy as P-D-S-A

In 1939, Walter Shewhart introduced the concept of “plan-do-check-act” as a scientific process of acquiring knowledge. In the 1980s, Edwards Deming refined the cycle by changing “check” into a “study” process. The cycle is logical and is used to test information before moving to the next step. It can be applied to all types of learning and improvement. It can also be applied to improve your daily workflow. Here’s how.

Plan

  • Write down everything that you need to do. Hold this list in your in-basket, notebook, email folder or calendar, anywhere that you normally keep your “to-do’s” (but not in your head!).
  • Review the items on your list and determine priorities.
  • Determine resource requirements for each item on your list. Can you do it all yourself? Or do you need to delegate? To whom will you delegate?
  • Do you need equipment or materials to complete work on any of the items on your list? Note what is required and when/where to order.
  • How much time will it take for you to complete each item on your list? When you have your timeline, multiply it by three to get a realistic timeline.
  • Schedule time in your calendar for each of the planned items based on your realistic timeline.
  • Remember to schedule priority items first. Base priority on your organization’s requirements in light of long-term goals and objectives. If you’re not sure what a priority item is, ask someone who knows the answer.
  • When scheduling time to accomplish tasks, take into account your individual energy cycle. For instance, if your energy is higher in the morning, then plan on working on more difficult tasks, leaving less demanding work for the afternoon such as returning phone calls or emails, attending meetings, etc.

Do

  • Do the work as planned. In other words, work your plan!
  • Follow B-F-A-T for email and everything else. For instance, if the scheduled item requires considerable work, B-bring it forward by scheduling time to work on it (e.g., big projects, research, report writing, etc.). If the item is for information purposes only, then F-file it. If the item can be dealt with in less than two minutes, then A-act on it now. If the item has no value to you or the organization, then T-toss/delete it. There. You’re done.

Study

  • Daily, weekly, and monthly, review your calendar and list of to-do’s.
  • Update your to-do list by deleting items that are complete and rescheduling items that can be rescheduled.
  • Keep your list current.
  • If you’re falling behind schedule, can you delegate work? Perhaps your timelines are inaccurate. Go back and re-examine your estimates, requirements, and priorities.
  • What modifications need to be made to your priorities, schedule, resources, timelines, delegated work, etc.?

Act

  • Based on the results of the review of your work (i.e., the “study” phase), make adjustments to your work plan.
  • Go back to the “plan” phase and repeat the cycle.

What you may have noticed about this four-step process is that we spend the most amount of time in the planning phase. This makes sense because planning is the most important part of anything we do. If we don’t plan, we set ourselves up for failure. It is not unusual to spend up to 80 percent of time in the planning phase. Once you know what needs doing and you’re prepared by planning for it, execution is relatively easy.  

Repeat this cycle as frequently as you need. It can be done several times even within one task. This cycle is your key to continuous improvement in your workflow.

Imagine if each individual followed a continuous improvement cycle in their work. The resulting benefits would include organization-wide continuous improvement such as greater efficiency, greater productivity, less waste, and a culture that thrives on innovation and change. The plan-do-study-act cycle is your key to continuing success.

Success is 20 Percent Intelligent Effort

For the longest time, I was doing it all wrong. I was killing myself with work. And to add insult to injury, I was doing the wrong kind of work. “Wrong” in the sense that I was focusing on everything rather than zeroing in on the most important. I think exhaustion made me stop. That was when I realized that perhaps Pareto was right.

In 1906, Wilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas, and other similar observations. In 1941, Joseph Juran, a management consultant, applied Pareto’s observations to quality issues, coining the Pareto Principle: the “law of the vital few and trivial many” (or as Juran preferred, “law of the vital few and useful many”) which states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Putting this into perspective, this means that 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts. The flip side is also true: 20% of our results can come from 80% of our efforts. In the first instance, you’re working on the important, in the second, you’re not. Many individuals don’t rise above the bar; instead, they devote 80% of their efforts to produce a mere 20% results. But those few that do rise above do so because they’ve mastered the art of work.

Working is essential for good health, happiness, and wealth (i.e., 20% effort for 80% result). But if you’re spending most of your time working on things that don’t matter, you’re probably working to the detriment of your good health, happiness and wealth (i.e., 80% effort for 20% result). Who doesn’t want to work less, getting the same or better results and have more free time? I know I do.

Over the past several months, I’ve listened to complaints about the long hours that people spend at work, but without the reciprocal results for their effort. To put this into perspective for them, I ask them how much time they spend each week working on their strategy or priority projects. Then I ask them how much time they spend socializing (or watching television). Enough said.

What drives success? It’s not the amount of effort or long hours that you put into your work. Success is about using efficient systems and processes that enable you to work less on everything and work more on the important. Think about where you’re wasting your time. Now think about how that time can be used on the important so that in the very near future, you can have time to waste.

Here’s to your success.

Relax to Gain Power

Productivity is directly proportional to your ability to control stress. That is, the more you are able to control your stress, the greater your productivity. And with greater productivity comes greater power.

Imagine this:

  • Your boss has moved the report deadline forward
  • You need to pick your kids up from school
  • Your in-laws are coming over for dinner this weekend
  • The project team meeting needs to be rescheduled
  • The house has to be cleaned
  • The groceries need to be bought
  • A key project team member called in sick today
  • The kids’ piano lessons were cancelled this week

…and that’s just from the top of your head! Can you see the problem with this? The problem is that your mind is being consumed with to-do’s that directly inhibit your productivity. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The constant rattling of “to-do’s” in your head compromises both your ability to relax and your power. What to do (pardon the pun) about this? Create systems that help to relax your mind.

When one has a system for managing their day, the mind quiets. And when the mind is quiet, you are able to approach your day and its challenges with the necessary focus. But when your mind is noisy, you cannot do this – the white noise zaps your power. To stop the noise and take back your power, here are five things you can do right now:

  1. Today, plan for tomorrow. That means today you will make a list of everything you need to accomplish tomorrow.
  2. Take that list and input it into your calendar, scheduling sufficient time for each to-do.
  3. Too many to-do’s for tomorrow? Bounce non-priority items to the next day and the days after that. Tomorrow’s to-do’s are only “must do tomorrow” items, not “must do this week/month” items.
  4. Manage yourself and your work habits. Be honest with yourself. Are you following your schedule? If not, where are you wasting your time and why? Identify timewasters and get rid of them.
  5. Control your work environment. You can manage external distractions including telephone calls, emails, visitors, and a noisy work environment.

I find that when I schedule all of my activities and follow them, my mind is free to focus on only the immediate task on which I’m working. Why? Because I trust that my system will alert me when the next task or meeting is due. I don’t have to worry about upcoming tasks in the meantime. The freedom gained with using schedules and lists is seen in the productivity gains that seem to occur naturally from this freedom.

You owe it to yourself to free your mind and take back your power. The increased productivity that you will experience will not only make you shine at work, but you will also feel better and be more fun to be around. And who wouldn’t want this experience?

For more information on how to plan and manage your work day, see “How Can Bottleneck Executives Improve their Personal Workflow?”

Whenever I Have a Problem, I’m Around

(My thanks to Patrick Davidson for the idea for the blog title.)

Are you a player? Or are you a victim?

If you’re a player, you choose to resolve problems. If you’re a victim, you act as if there is no choice and accept everything that is thrown your way. Whether one can say they have a problem is based solely on their perception of the situation.

Problems are not things. They cannot be held. Rather, they are perceptions of things. They can be seen as situations to avoid or as opportunities to embrace. Victims see problems as obstacles that cannot be overcome and use language such as “should” or “not fair.” Players, on the other hand, embrace problems as opportunities for change.

Every organization needs players. Why? Players are the change agents without whom organizations die. Players help others in your organization interact in a way that leads to shared beliefs and values which in turn leads to shared organizational goals and behaviours. Beliefs and values drive behaviour.

For example, organizations with shared beliefs of consistency, fairness, communication, and team involvement will display those beliefs through improved productivity, improved quality, increased group morale, and increased individual satisfaction across the organization. In organizations that do not have these behaviours, players are needed to help organizations change their beliefs.

If you’re not a player in your organization, here are ten things you can do right now to move toward becoming a player. In turn, you will be helping yourself and your organization change for the better.

  1. Buy part of the problem to be part of the solution. That is, see the problem for what it is – an opportunity to improve. Get involved in creating the solution.
  2. Grow through adversity. It takes a lot of emotional strength to grow into a player. Get rid of negative language (e.g., should, must, unfair, unjust, etc.). Use positive language (e.g., could, might, fair, just, etc.).
  3. Use pain and frustration to build strength. Ask “what challenges am I facing?” rather than “what happened to me?”
  4. Do not blame. Do not judge. Take responsibility for the process in your organization. It doesn’t matter who created the process.
  5. For each solution, ask “what worked well?” and “what could have been improved?”
  6. Learn from your experiences. The only failure is the one where you do not learn from your mistakes.
  7. Share information before it is needed. Openness and transparency create a trusting and proactive environment.
  8. Take initiative. Don’t wait to be asked to do something.
  9. Give credit where credit is due. Praising others for their contribution, no matter how small, will go a long way to building trust. As Patrick Davidson points out, a kind word and a thoughtful gesture are the two most powerful things in existence. Use them and use them often.
  10. Use common sense to build common practice. That is, build upon all of the above points to implement effective and efficient practices in your organization.

Implementing the above will help you build space, safety, and comfort in the organization so that others become players. In essence, you’re changing the beliefs and values of the organization one person at a time until all behaviours align to create a quality culture of efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity. This is how one changes organizational culture.

Next time you encounter a problem, stick around. It’s a perfect opportunity to grow, learn, and improve your player skills.

If Everything’s Under Control, You’re Going Too Slow

Mario Andretti, retired world champion racing driver, said: “If everything’s under control, you’re going too slow.” In other words, there has to be flexibility in work in order to achieve maximum productivity. When there is little or no flexibility in work, there is a good chance that the work is being micromanaged. In the workplace, this quashes much more than productivity.

Micromanaging is the wrong way to work. It slows down everything and everyone. Checking, re-checking, and checking again is a sign that you have little confidence in either the work systems or processes or both. And if you are a leader with micromanagement tendencies, that’s much worse. Micromanaging leaders (typically Type A personalities) have the best intentions for the organization, but what they’re actually doing is tearing down the organization, one person at a time.

Micromanaging leaders create organizations with the following characteristics:

  • Weak, dysfunctional teams
  • Staff that are unable to make decisions
  • Staff that spend countless hours second guessing what is required
  • Underutilized staff skills
  • Fearful and poorly motivated staff
  • Lack of creativity and innovation
  • Confusion due to unclear vision, plan or strategy
  • Disempowered staff
  • Lack of trust between leaders and staff; and staff and staff
  • High staff turnover
  • Reduced productivity, efficiency and effectiveness

Micromanagement tends to show up when there is pressure and then with good intentions, the micromanager tries to do everybody else’s job to “help” them meet deadlines. Instead of improving productivity, it is decreased, and dissatisfied workers are created. High turnover of staff should not be a surprise in these situations. According to the College of Business and Administration at Southern Illinois University, the negative impacts of micromanagement are so intense that it is labeled among the top three reasons employees resign.

How can the micromanaging leader move away from the micro to the macro? Communication is the key. Leaders who don’t understand what their staff are doing and staff that don’t understand what the organization requires of them create an environment prone to micromanagement. Fear drives micromanagement, but lack of, or inadequate communication sets up the perfect conditions for micromanagement to thrive.

At the end of the day, both leaders and staff want the same thing–success: Success not only for themselves, but also for their organization. If you’re a micromanager, here are six things you can do to get back on the macro track to productivity:

  1. Conduct a self-assessment to determine your working style. Be honest about your style. Micromanagement does not have to be a way of life.
  2. Delegate work if you are in a position to do so; and trust your staff with the work. If you are not a leader, but are overworked, talk to your boss and discuss how to achieve better workload balance.
  3. Develop a vision for your department or organization. What should your department look like one, two, or five years from now? How will micromanagement impact this vision?
  4. Develop policies and procedures for your organization. Policies help identify standards and procedures help all staff meet the standards without the need to micromanage.
  5. Develop, maintain, and improve communication between all lines of management and staff. If no one communicates, how do you know where the problems are or what issues are most urgent?
  6. Expect and allow staff to make mistakes. Mistakes provide excellent learning opportunities.

In addition, learn to listen. Listening is an important element of communication. Don’t just pay lip service to communication. The more serious you are about communication, the less you will engage in micromanagement and the more your staff will engage with you and with their work.

It’s not sex. It’s not drinking. It’s stress and it’s soaring.

(headline source: Fortune Magazine, October 28, 2002)

A recent study shows that six in ten workers in major global economies are experiencing increased workplace stress. China (86%) has the highest rise in workplace stress (source: The Regus Group). The American Institute of Stress reports that 80% of workers feel stress on the job and nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress. And 42% say their co-workers need such help.

What is causing all this stress?

One of the main causes of stress is complexity as can be found in faster-better-more technology. With the faster-better-more comes an inherent risk of inefficiency and ineffectiveness for those on the managing end. I submit that most companies have done a poor job of helping their staff manage technology.

Think about something as innocuous as email. How much stress do you incur as a direct result of too much email? Does your company provide you with resources, training, and guidance to help you manage your email so that it is not a source of stress for you (and those who attempt to communicate with you via email)?

Consider this: There were 3.3 billion email accounts in 2012 (source: Radacati Group). This is expected to increase to 4.3 billion by 2016. Of these amounts, corporate email makes up 25%, yet accounts for most of the world’s email traffic. In 2012, the number of business emails sent and received per day totaled 89 billion. And this number is expected to reach over 143 billion by year-end 2016. Consumer email, on the other hand, is expected to decrease, but this is partly due to increased use of texting and other social media such as Facebook and Twitter. And mobile email is also increasing.

It’s no wonder that stress is soaring. Juggling the ineffectiveness and inefficiencies imposed by technology at work only to come home to even more of the same can increase stress. So how does one cope with this bombardment? Here are some suggestions to help you stop stress from soaring in your life:

  1. Prepare for work by not rushing to work. Give yourself lots of time to get there. Studies show that if you start your day rushing, you will feel more stressed and be less productive at work.
  2. Keep your email inbox clear. Zero items at the end of the day is the rule, not a suggestion (for work and home email accounts). Immediately move all read items out of your inbox into appropriate storage locations (i.e., personal folders, shared drive folders, delete, print and file, etc.). By doing this, you will reduce your visual clutter and also be able to search for email items more efficiently.
  3. Set priorities for your day and stick to those priorities. Unless there’s an emergency, there’s no reason to shift priorities. Shifting will only pull you behind schedule. You want to be ahead, since by doing so, you will experience less stress.
  4. Go home on time whenever you can. Sometimes you may need to do overtime, but this should be the exception rather than the rule. Going home on time means you are sticking to a schedule. And this means that both you and your family will be relaxed about schedules.
  5. When at home, don’t use your mobile devices or your desktop computer until you’ve had a chance to unwind. This means spend time with your family and enjoy dinner before checking your mobile devices. I check my mobile device only if I am expecting to hear from a friend or family member, or if I want to get in touch with them. Otherwise, work can wait until the morning.
  6. Get enough sleep. Sleep and efficiency go hand in hand. Decreasing sleep by as little as 1.5 hours for just one night reduces daytime alertness by 32 percent. This means your ability to function is about as good as someone who is inebriated. Get at least 7.5-8.0 hours of sleep each and every night. Use time management planning and plan your bedtime, sticking to your normal bedtime routine every night. On time.

Practice the above six steps and you will be helping yourself reduce your stress. You will experience better mood, better sleep, less tension and anxiety; you will make less mistakes at work, gain better concentration, and will be a much happier person all around.