Taming Insomnia to Improve Productivity

There are so many reasons to get a good night’s sleep: you feel better, you look better, you perform better, people like being around you … in short, sleep allows us to be our best self. And the benefits of quality sleep extend beyond feelings – ranging from reducing stress to improving productivity.

Most healthy adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. When we lose even one hour of sleep, we experience fatigue the next day and our ability to function may be as effective as an individual whose blood alcohol level is .08.

Not sleeping enough also has other implications, including:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Moodiness and irritability
  • Reduced creativity and problem-solving skills
  • Reduced immunity
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Overeating and weight gain
  • Impaired motor skills and increased risk of accidents
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems

What do you do, then, if insomnia prevents you from dropping off right away? A study by Nancy Digdon and Amy Koble, published in Applied Psychology in May 2011, found that sleep interventions such as constructive worry, imagery distraction, or gratitude all provide effective relief from insomnia.

Here is how the techniques work. 

  1. Constructive worry. Set aside 15 minutes earlier in the day (before 8:00 p.m.) and write out worries and concerns that are likely to interfere with sleep and steps toward their resolution. Then, if worry creeps in at bedtime, remind yourself that you already devoted time to these concerns, and that you will do so again tomorrow when you are less tired and better able to think of good solutions.
  2. Imagery distraction. This involves closing your eyes and imagining a situation that is interesting and engaging, as well as pleasant and relaxing. For instance, imagine being on a holiday, a sunny beach, or a happy family occasion. This will calm your mind, allowing you to drift to sleep.
  3. Gratitude. This is another distraction technique. When one is under stress, it is common to be preoccupied with worries and concerns, and to ignore the positive experiences in one’s life. Shifting your attention to the things you are grateful for (i.e., all the positive events in your life) is a distraction from worry. Focusing on the positives lifts your mood and allows you to fall asleep more easily.

If you are sleep deprived, try one or all of the above techniques to help you get and stay sleep, so you can wake up feeling refreshed.

And remember to schedule enough time for sleep every day by making sleep a top priority on your “to-do list.”

Managing Energy to Manage Time

Did you know that the higher your energy, the better your ability to manage your time? It’s true. Since there are no limits on our energy, we can use our energy within available time to produce more. The trick is in understanding our individual limitations on available energy. Let me explain.

Each of us reacts to both emotional and physical stimuli differently. Some things energize us, where other things de-energize. For example, my energy soars when I identify the cause of a problem that inhibits efficiency. Then I get really creative in identifying solutions. On the flip side, my energy depletes when I work on mundane and repetitive tasks. Others might find the opposite effect.

When your energy soars, it’s like your battery recharges—a sudden burst of energy makes you feel more alive, more capable, and certainly better able to cope with whatever is thrown your way. The interesting thing about this “recharged” feeling is that it enables you to do more in less time. And the way we can sustain this feeling is by taking care of ourselves to ensure that our energy levels are at their optimum.

Here’s how to recharge and sustain energy levels for maximum productivity.

  1. Exercise regularly. Every day, schedule time for at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise. Go for a walk, run, lift weights, do whatever is necessary to wake up your body.
  2. Determine your personal energy cycle. For three days, keep a log of your energy levels. For every hour (from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed), rate your energy level from 0 (lowest) to 5 (highest). Review your log at the end of three days and identify your peak energy levels.
  3. Use your peak energy levels to work on the most important, most challenging, and most focused work. When we do this, our productivity increases dramatically.
  4. Create your ideal day. Use your peak energy levels to work on long-range and interim goals, choosing tasks that will achieve your goals. Schedule and work on low-energy tasks during your non-peak energy times.
  5. Manage yourself every day to achieve both your career and personal goals. There is no magic and no quick solution for this. You will get out of your day what you put into your day.

In addition to the above, make time for fun activities that will boost your energy. How about lunch with your BFF? Or playing a game of Scrabble or Words with Friends? Or maybe a coffee with your boss to discuss your career strategy is the perfect energizer?

Whatever you do, use your energy wisely and boost it when you can. When you do, your mood will be lighter and you will get everything done more effectively and efficiently. In fact, it will feel as if you have more hours in your day. That’s the result of managing ourselves to boost our energy.

The Little Things ARE Important

When we focus on getting things done, we typically focus on allotting time for the important and time-consuming tasks. If it’s very important and it’s going to take a long time, we must get it done first, right? Yes and no.

In prioritizing, it is easy to forget to take care of work that can be done in a minute or two; regardless of its importance. When we consistently defer doing the little things, they can become big things. And big things can be a lot harder to manage.

When we end up facing a mountain of big things, we can become overwhelmed. Overwhelm may lead to procrastination which may lead to more little things piling up and becoming big things. It becomes a vicious cycle—little work becomes big work that leads to overwhelm that leads to procrastination. This can lead to stress that eventually leads to poor health and in extreme cases, death.

Take e-mail as an example. How many opened e-mails do you have right now in your e-mail inbox? Any number above zero is too many. Why? Because as soon as you open an e-mail, an action is required that will allow you to remove it from you inbox.

If you open an e-mail and leave it in your inbox (whether or not you acted on it), the accumulating open e-mails in your inbox become electronic clutter that contribute to mental clutter. And mental clutter contributes to overwhelm. For e-mail management, follow the B-F-A-T rule.

For any task that can be done within a couple of minutes, do it immediately. If you do, you will decrease your workload almost instantaneously. You will also decrease your mental clutter. The goal is to start working on tasks that can get done quickly and then follow through to completion.

In other words—if you start, don’t stop until it’s done.

Any tasks that keep nagging at you such as the bill that needs to be paid, the appointment that needs to be made, the paper on your desk that needs to be filed—all of these things can take less than a few minutes, but as soon as you get them done, you are saving yourself from carrying them in your head as a “need to do.”

If you have thought about something more than once, but have not taken action to complete it, this is an item that must be taken care of right away; especially if you can get it done in a few minutes.

In addition to taking care of the little things immediately, do not write the little things on your “to do” list. If it takes you longer to write down what you need to do than it does to actually do it, then start doing it and don’t stop until you’re done.

A little known side-effect of doing quick tasks right away is that the action of not stopping something that you start can translate to developing good habits. For instance, if you know you need to go for a workout (the thought keeps nagging you), putting on your runners (starting) will take less than a minute. Once you’ve got them on, follow through on the task (don’t stop).

Whether at work or at home, turn nagging thoughts into actions and start working on all the little things to completion. When you do, the inertia of your actions will result in good habits that can last a lifetime.

All you need is to get started.

Controlling Time

A search on amazon.ca returned 68,588 books relating to time management and a similar search on amazon.com returned 108,557 titles. The prevalence of these resources seems to indicate that we have a problem in understanding how to manage our time.

Psychology Today defines time management as the “ability to plan and control how you spend the hours in your day to effectively accomplish your goals.” In short, if you don’t set goals, you are more likely to have time management problems. But research also shows that even those who set goals can struggle with time.

Perhaps the question that needs to be addressed is not how to manage time, but how individuals need to manage themselves to achieve their goals. If achieving goals is the (pardon the pun) goal.

How are you managing yourself? Does your typical day start with checking e-mail and then tweeting about last night’s party? Do you browse Facebook to catch up on what your hundreds of friends did over the weekend? Or do you review the list you created last night outlining your priorities for today?

In the first instance, you are allowing technology and others to manage your time. In the latter instance, you are in control.

Controlling yourself and your time means that you:

  1. Plan your day(s) in advance.
  2. Identify the important and urgent tasks and do them first.
  3. Build in “free time” in your plan to allow yourself to relax.
  4. Stick to your plan, only sidetracking for emergencies.
  5. Update your plan after emergencies to get back on-track.
  6. Say no to work or non-work activities that add no value to you or your organization’s strategic direction.
  7. Build relationships that will enable you to accomplish your tasks/goals.

Let’s face it: No amount of instruction on time management is going to help you manage your time if you allow events or people to control your time. Only you can control you. And that includes making and following through on decisions that will propel you to achieve your goals.

How you control yourself dictates how you manage your time. We all have the same amount of time in any given day—1,440 minutes exactly. Control how you use each minute, every day, by building good habits. If you do, you’ll never again need instructions on time management.

Triage—Best Served Regularly

Triage helps us decipher between the important and unimportant and is essential to ensuring we do the right work at the right time and to/for the right person/thing. But be aware: Avoid the trap of triaging work just for the sake of keeping workflow moving.

Blindly triaging work can cost more than stopping the flow to challenge whether the work is necessary in the first place. This is particularly relevant to such things as writing reports that no one will ever read, creating programs that no one will ever use, or creating new departments that have limited (or no) usefulness to stakeholders or to the organization. You have an obligation to your organization to challenge when the work you are doing has no value.

But if you are doing the right work and for the right reasons, then managing work through triage can be very effective.

Triage is about prioritizing work based on its importance and urgency. It is particularly useful when applied to managing information. By triaging information such as correspondence and e-mail, you can save a lot of time if the most important gets done first. In fact, many people might say that triage is like applying the 80:20 rule to everything you do—you create 80% of your results from 20% of your efforts by focusing your efforts primarily on the important and urgent.

How do you determine what is important and urgent? Here are five suggestions for dispatching your important and urgent work to create superb results for you and your organization:

  1. Keep an updated “to-do” list and focus on completing medium-importance, high urgency goals most of the time. This will give you 80% of your results. Constantly scan your list and drop items that are of low importance or have no urgency.
  2. Standardize work whenever you can. For instance, have procedures in place on how to write reports, how to format documents, how to handle email, etc. The more standards in your organization, the more time you will have for high-productivity and high-creativity items instead of thinking about how to write a report, how to format a document or how to handle email.
  3. When making decisions, don’t focus on the decision. Instead, focus on options that may result in the right decision. It’s much easier to make a decision based on a few options instead of making a decision based on the entire case.
  4. Close your email and browser when working on important work. You will get the important work done much sooner.
  5. Stop multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is counterproductive. In fact, everyone’s brain slows down considerably when trying to juggle multiple tasks.

And if the above still falls short of helping you and your organization achieve exceptional workflow, outsourcing of work is another option. It costs much less to hire experts than it does to fumble through work that is not within your or your organization’s area of expertise.

The fact is that none of us are good at everything, but all of us are good at something. Determine the areas where you and your organization create the most value—and outsource everything else.

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.

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?”

Brain Dumps – Key to Being Organized

When Michel Eyquem de Montagne (1533-1592) wrote: “Get a purge for your brain. It will do better than for your stomach,” he wasn’t thinking about modern-day business. However, his words echo true about stressful living, no matter the century. When you consider how much “stuff” our brains collect and how that stuff can be detrimental to our performance, who wouldn’t benefit from a getting a brain purge?

How many times a day, week, or month, do you find yourself being pulled in several different directions at once? How many times have you written a list to contain your tasks and then equally frequently forgot about or didn’t refer to the lists? Unless they are actionable, lists are meaningless. To the rescue: brain dumps.

Brain dumps are like journaling. If you’ve ever kept a journal, you’ll know that it’s possibly one of the most powerful ways to accelerate your own personal development. By putting your thoughts in writing, you simultaneously free your mind of stress, allowing an opportunity for insights that perhaps you could not (or would not) otherwise be able to see.

A brain dump can also be compared to brainstorming, but instead of brainstorming with a team, you are brainstorming with yourself. Here’s how to do a brain dump. Find a pen and paper or use your iPad, laptop, desktop computer – whatever works for you – and spend up to ten minutes writing everything that’s on your mind. This includes writing down all the things you need or want to do and even ideas that may seem ridiculous.

As you’re writing, don’t sort your ideas or analyze them – just write them. Once created, this brain dump list becomes your “master” list and a space for “freedom” – a place for gathering action items without the responsibility of actually doing any of them.

Brain dumps allow you to take a bird’s eye view of your thoughts and by doing so, you can make better decisions. When you’re ready, refer to your list and take the appropriate action with each item. Is it a required action? Do you need to do it? Can it be delegated? Can it be deleted from your list?

Review and add to this master list regularly (monthly, weekly – whatever works for you). By maintaining this list, you will free yourself of the constant “to do’s” stuck in your head. In addition, you will be better able to solve problems because you are able to “see” the problem instead of burying it in your head. You will gain clarity about the items on your list, and you will also be able to verify your progress by keeping your list current – keeping only those items that have not been dealt with.

And the best thing about brain dumps and lists is that they help you get “unstuck.” They free your mind from the persistent playback mode. And there’s nothing better than getting “unstuck” and moving forward.