Working to Death

A recent reader survey shows that British Columbia’s business professionals are working long hours, trending to near 70-hour work weeks. If you’re in this group, you’re setting yourself up for serious health and safety problems, most of which stem from sleep deprivation. In addition to these concerns, working long hours is counterproductive and does more damage to your organization than you might think.

The more you work, the less efficient you become. This results in more waste and less productivity. If the cycle continues, the end result can range from absenteeism due to stress and sickness to accidents on the job and even to death. One of the best ways to get yourself off the cycle of overwork is to pay attention to your work when you’re at work. Become efficient and productive during your regular working hours and you’ll never again need to put in regular overtime.

Here are ten things you can do right now to improve your productivity – i.e., do more in less time:

  1. Eliminate your physical and electronic clutter. Both are wastes that inhibit your performance. A clean office with sparse décor and no stacks and piles of stuff is more conducive to productivity.
  2. Zone in on your work. Organize your work items in zones based on how frequently you access or need an item. For example, if you use a paper cutter only once a month, there is no need for it to be in your office (zone 1).
  3. Move email out of your inbox daily. At the end of the day, your inbox should contain ZERO items – each email you open must be handled immediately. Use the B-F-A-T rule. After you open an email, read it and then B-bring it forward (if further action is required), F-file it (no action is required), A-act on it immediately (if a short response will do), or T-delete (toss) it.
  4. Prioritize tomorrow’s activities the day before. Then work on your priorities as scheduled. Stick to your schedule.
  5. Stop procrastinating at work. Socializing and playing computer games while at work only adds to your workload. Get help for procrastination – it could be as simple as taking a day off to refresh and recharge.
  6. Don’t ignore overwhelm. Figure out why you’re overwhelmed, resolve your issues, and move forward. If you’re constantly overwhelmed with work, maybe you’re in the wrong job.
  7. Think before you act. Productive people spend a lot of time thinking about and planning how to accomplish tasks before they actually do them. This helps prevent re-doing work.
  8. Configure your office space. The most efficient office space is a U-shape. It enables efficient workflow, saving you time. Better yet, ask your boss to consider an open space design for the entire organization. It will help improve your creativity and productivity.
  9. Use project management skills for big projects. If you’re new to project task estimating, take a best-guess at how long a task will take and then multiply that time by three to get a true timeframe.
  10. Use standards and procedures. If your organization does not have standards and procedures for EVERYTHING that needs to get done, then you are spending more time on tasks than necessary.

Implementing these ten tips will help you decrease your hours at the office, so you have more time to spend with family and friends doing the things you love. And at the end of the day, you owe it to yourself and to your employer to return to work mentally refreshed the next day.

Success is More than Just Showing Up

Woody Allen said that “80 percent of success is showing up.” There is some truth to that, but if all you’re doing is just showing up, you’ve got as much chance of being successful as a turtle crossing a busy highway. Success depends on how productive you are, no matter what you’re doing – at home, at work, or at play (yes, I said play!).

If you show up without a plan for action, you can’t move forward. No matter how many action lists you have (and you should really only have one), if you approach the list without a purpose, there is little to no chance that you will accomplish any of the items on that list. Some people would have us believe that as long as we have our lists, we will plow through them and be productive. Not so.

In order to be productive, we need to think about how we will be productive. You may be surprised to learn that thinking about what needs to get done occupies a great deal of time for productive people. There’s no magic in productivity, but there is plenty of thought. One might even say that it’s an “inside job.” There is thought inside planning, creating, and acting on our plans.

The day before work, do you review your action items for the next day? Do you have reminders in your email calendar regarding work or meetings that need attention? Do you pay attention to your reminders or do you selectively ignore them? Do you act on all of the priorities that you set for yourself? Writing down and then ignoring reminders is counter-productive and a waste of time. Productivity requires us to pay attention, to think, and to be thoughtful of all of our actions.

Reminders and action plans allow us to free our mind when we do not need to be productive (e.g., when we’re on vacation). But if you’re not on vacation, the more thought that you can devote to everything you do, the more you will experience the power of productivity. In fact, some would say that this is the realization of the power of thought. That is, the more you think about what you need to do, the more likely it is that you will get it done.

It is no secret that our conditions and circumstances in life are a direct result of our thoughts. James Allen said “circumstances do not make a man, they reveal him.” Use your mind to create your circumstances. The state of your finances, health, and relationships all start with your thoughts and lead to actions that create your circumstances. Engage in thought that leads to productive actions. By doing so, you will not only be productive, but you will also be creating your circumstances for success.

Good, Better, Best

Do you remember a time when you tried to do your very best on an exam or an assignment? What about preparing for a presentation at work? Or planning a meeting or delivering a seminar? What did it feel like? Do you remember how much effort you put in to do your very best? If you did your very best, there is a strong likelihood that you also got the best reward from your efforts. And you were happy with the results.

Best is not the same as perfect. Being perfect carries with it the burden of unnecessary effort that does not reap an equivalent reward. Perfectionism involves setting impossible standards that carry an impossible probability of being achieved. Best, on the other hand, is doing what you are capable of doing to a high standard that you are able to achieve. It means extending beyond average – going beyond good – to do your very best.

Doing your best is not the same as being the best. If your aim is to be the best, you may end up with disappointments and impossibilities that are as difficult to achieve as if you are a perfectionist. Wanting to be the best at something is not a bad goal, but there must be a balance between winning (being the best) and losing (not being the best). For instance, if you enjoy sports, you know that there can only be one team that is labeled the best each season even though all teams try to do their best.

When one is doing their best, they are focused on the present to be as efficient and productive as possible; ensuring that the final product or service is of the highest quality. When you deliver high quality, you are able to take pride in your work because you expended the necessary effort to deliver your best performance, even if you did not qualify to be the best.

Contrast best with good or better. If you deliver a good product or service, knowing that you could have done better, how does this make you feel? There’s that knowledge that you could have done better, right? Whatever you do, if you know you could have done better, then you know you have not delivered your best results. If you haven’t delivered your best results, you also haven’t delivered your most efficient or most productive work, either.

An interesting facet of doing your best at everything is that eventually the lines between your working life and your personal life get blurred. Over time, you start to love what you do, continually expending your best effort in whatever you do. Focusing in the present to do your best lets you free your mind of superfluous thoughts that may impact best performance. If you keep in the present to do your best, there will come a time when you won’t be able to distinguish between work and play because both will be equally
enjoyable. Ultimately, that is the best achievement in life.

Is Your Cubicle the Source of Your Work Stress?

Office cubicles were introduced in 1968 by Robert Propst and were intended to increase office productivity. The idea was solid at the time, but as real estate costs grew, cubicle sizes decreased and are now a way of maximizing floor space by getting as many people into as little an area as possible. While this appears to be a logical solution to space problems, the solution has created other problems. Specifically, decreases in productivity and creativity.

Cubicles contribute to ill health such as back and eye strain (it turns out that the “one size fits all” model does not fit all). In addition, the constant hum of activity around cubicles inhibits concentration and affects physical wellbeing. The physical and psychological strains force your body to release hormones that increase your pulse and breathing and tense your muscles.

While we can all manage stress sometimes (and we know that stress is important in some situations), the relentless stress on your body not only makes you ill (e.g., potential for high blood pressure, heart attack, chronic fatigue, diabetes, depression, etc.), but it also decreases your productivity. Employees with health issues coupled with low productivity are exactly the opposite of what employers want.

In addition to physical and psychological stress and decreased productivity, cubicle workers also have a decreased ability to be creative. Constant stress impacts the hippocampus’s ability to learn new things and also prevents new memory from forming. And if the ability to learn new things and form new memory is impacted, creativity also shuts down. The question then is whether cubicles are sending companies backward rather than moving them forward?

Do you sometimes feel as if you’re trapped and powerless? Apparently, this is not just a state of mind. It really is the accumulated years of stress of working in cubicles. And it  can have detrimental consequences. In fact, the Japan National Center for Occupational Safety and Health acknowledges “Karoshi” (i.e., “overwork”) as a workplace cause of accidents or death. It reported 690 such cases in 2001, of which 143 were deaths. At the time of this writing, more recent statistics were not available.

If this isn’t enough to ring alarm bells for employers, in 2011 Stanford Medicine reported that those in high-stress jobs visited general practitioners 26 percent more and specialists 27 percent more compared with those in low-stress jobs. In addition, they found that in 2009, 70 percent of American employees considered their workplace a significant source of stress and 51 percent reported that job stress reduces their productivity.

Given these reports on stressful work environments, how can companies improve their workers’ productivity and creativity and, in turn, their bottom line? A study by Cornell University International Workplace Studies Program suggests that eliminating cubicles and closed door offices and going to an open bull-pen type of configuration offers the best results. While this is counterintuitive, the benefit is that all those working in the open area are more conscious of the effect of their actions on others and tend to be more focused on their work and more respectful of their neighbours. Noise levels are reduced and people skills are improved.

At the end of the day, the question is whether companies are willing to do away with their investments in cubicles. From my perspective and drawing on my own experience from having worked in cubicles, I suggest that the smart thing to do is to treat those investments as losses. The bigger long-term gain will be increased productivity and creativity from workers, not to mention a healthier, happier workforce. Improved teamwork will also be a nice side effect.

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.


Meetings – bane or blessing?

If you’re like most executives, meetings consume a large part of your day. But if you’re a smart executive, you know whether attending or chairing a meeting is worthwhile well before the meeting takes place.

In my experience, many people attend meetings to gather information, provide project status updates, or invigorate a team that appears to be losing steam. These are all the wrong reasons for meeting.

If you need information or need to provide information such as a project status update, use email. This is especially the case if the information serves a one-way purpose. Why waste the time of several people if your goal can be achieved in a more efficient manner?

And invigorating a team? You don’t need a group meeting for that. Meet individually with each team member to address their concerns in private. This is a surefire way to get the motivation back–when the member sees that you are taking a personal interest  in their concerns rather than grouping all interests in a boardroom.

But if you really do need a meeting, here are key considerations to ensure your meeting is efficient and effective:

  1. Prepare an agenda. The agenda must include the meeting date, start time and duration, location, purpose, and topic items allocated to meeting discussion leaders along with an objective for each topic. Be sure your agenda conveys a sense of urgency, so that participants will want to participate  and not just show up (or worse: show up late). For example, a meeting purpose of “budget challenges this year” is much more interesting than “budget status.”
  2. Invite the right people. All those at the meeting must either have something to contribute to the topic or have authority over decisions regarding the topic. If they are neither, they do not need to be at the meeting, but you can certainly keep them in the loop via email.
  3. Assign meeting attendees a task(s) for the meeting. For instance, someone can be a timekeeper for the meeting to ensure the meeting topics stay within allotted time, someone else can take minutes, another person can manage the whiteboard to capture ideas, and another person can be responsible for ensuring all people are heard. The more involved the attendees, the better the chances of a successful outcome. Tip: if you have extensive flipchart or whiteboard notes or diagrams, take a picture of them and them convert them to an Adobe file. This will make the work searchable and no one needs to spend hours after the meeting to re-create the original work.
  4. Whether you are facilitating or participating, hone in on non-verbal cues of  attendees. Understanding the non-verbal cures will help you to engage all  attendees in the meeting. According to Alton Barbour, only seven percent of communication is what we say and the rest is how we say it. Pitch, volume, and rhythm carry 38 percent of a message, while body language, facial expressions, and eye movement account for 55 percent.
  5. Close the meeting with a plan of action. And remember to follow-up the meeting with minutes in a timely manner.

Incorporating the above considerations into any meeting you convene or attend, will provide you an opportunity to be part of efficient meetings that provide real value to participants. And since meetings are products of good leadership, conducting an efficient and productive meeting will solidify your own good leadership skills.