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.

Changing Culture: One Person at a Time

Culture is defined as “group norms of behaviour and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place.” For example, look at the typical meetings in your office. Is everyone on time or do meetings usually start five to ten minutes later than schedule?

What about attention to detail? Do final project reports receive a thorough review and commentary or are they filed as received? These scenarios represent organizational culture.

If your employees are stressed, overwhelmed, or procrastinate on deadlines, or if your company is always underperforming, don’t blame your employees. Blame your organization’s leaders.

An organization’s leaders or founders establish values that permeate through the organization and manifest in behaviours. The more these behaviours loop back to the leaders’ own values, the more they are reinforced and perpetuated throughout the organization.

To change an organization’s culture, the leaders must change their own values and behaviours. They can do this by creating a vision for the company and telling the story about how working toward the vision will help the company and its employees grow.

In addition, leaders need to be persuasive and model the behaviour that they wish to see from their employees; frequently engaging in conversations with all staff to “sell” the vision and inspire their staff. This is the correct approach.

An incorrect approach to changing organizational culture is through disincentives such as coercion, threats, or punishment. All of these “power tools” may work to incite change in employees’ or departmental behaviours, but the change is temporary at best. Using power tools to influence cultural change is not sustainable or desirable.

Here are four considerations for changing your organization’s culture to one that is efficient, productive and effective:

  1. Sell the new vision and enlist early adopters and those that are on the fence to join you in selling the vision. Once they do, ensure that they are recognized for their accomplishments.
  2. Don’t just preach about the need for change. Use examples from your company that demonstrate an urgency for change. For instance, have managers take calls from disgruntled customers to understand why customers are cancelling orders at the last minute, leaving the company in the hole by $100,000 for each product design prototype that is not purchased.
  3. Redistribute resources to the 20 percent of areas that produce 80 percent of the company’s results. These are areas where implementing change first will have a tremendous impact organization-wide.
  4. Enlist an individual in your company called a “consigliere” (source: Blue Ocean Strategy). This individual will find out who is fighting change, who is supporting change, and what you need to do to build strategies for sustainable change.

To this last point, a stumbling block to any change initiative is typically an “old guard” mentality that is steadfastly held, usually by long-time employees. Leaders must expect to spend a great deal of time with these individuals to get them to buy into the organization’s new vision, so that they don’t disrupt the new way forward.

Changing an organization’s culture is probably one of the hardest things that leaders will do. It’s a slow process, but the rewards of working in a vibrant company where respect and appreciation of everyone’s time are top of mind will go a long way to ensuring long term organizational and personal success.

Involuntary Systems are the Key to Success

Have you ever thought about how many times your heart beats in a second, minute, day, or hour? Very few of us ever think about how our body functions, yet there it is–doing an amazing job of balancing all of our internal systems to keep us alive.

A parallel can be made between our involuntary body systems and “involuntary” systems of organization that help us achieve success. Imagine having to tell your heart each time blood needs to pump or to tell your lungs when it’s time to breathe. This would be a very inefficient way of managing our body, not to mention it would be an all-consuming exercise leaving us with no time to do anything else. Likewise with office or personal organization systems, if they are not “second nature” or “involuntary” for us, we continue to struggle with disorganization, stress, procrastination, overwhelm, and other symptoms that hinder our productivity.

An organized person knows (almost intuitively) their priorities including where to find information and how to manage their time. Each time they need to work on a priority item, they know immediately how to go about it. They do not create a new system(s) for prioritizing or getting organized. They have created efficient workflow systems, so they need very little time to maintain or think about them. Much like the involuntary heart beats.

Think about a records management system that includes filing cabinets stuffed with file folders and documents. The file folders are labeled, but there is no consistency in labeling or filing. Do you think this system is easy to use? No, it is not. And because it is not easy to use, each time you need to file something, you need to think about how and where you will file your documents. This takes up your time and energy and creates stress. An intuitively organized filing system, on the other hand, enables you to file “automatically” and keep work flowing seamlessly.

Other examples include the manner in which invoices are expedited for payment or the way in which patients are triaged at medical clinics. Once the workflow process is set up and procedures learned for each process, you no longer need to waste time thinking about how to do something. In effect, your process and procedures have enabled you to devise your own automatic system for the way you work. The work becomes second nature. The more automatic the flow, the more organized the system.

A nice side effect of automatic processes and systems is that they enable us to be more creative. This is because we do not have to think about the process or system–we just do our work; like our heart beating in the background, our process and systems are also in silent mode. This enables our minds the freedom to explore new opportunities, giving us the ability to be even more productive.

Next time you work on a task, ask yourself if you need to rely on procedures each time or has the task become automatic. If you need to spend time thinking about how to approach the same task each time, then ask how you can make your thinking about the work more automatic. You owe it to yourself to make your tasks as automatic as possible, so that thinking about the systems and processes doesn’t detract from your ability to use them.


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.