Be More Effective – Week 20: Pace Yourself

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If we want to grow, we need to push ourselves. We need to go beyond our comfort zone and do what’s hard. In order to build a muscle, we need to stress it to the point where is tires out. The same is true for other areas in which we learn and grow.

However, and this is critically important, we also need to slow down and recover. Our abilities grow when we slow down after a stretch push. Our muscles grow in the recovery times, to get ready for the next time when we stress them more than usual.

Pace yourself. Decide when to push hard and when to slow down and recover. Recover and grow. Get ready for the next time you will need to push.

Without those downtimes and recovery periods we won’t get better. Our muscles will not grow. Likewise our abilities will not grow if we operate always and exclusively at the point where we’re close to breaking.

We grow from pushing, speeding up and then consciously slowing down and relaxing again.

We grow if we stretch ourselves, but ONLY if we also allow our muscles and mind to regenerate. Otherwise we just burn out. Pace yourself!

As you take on stretch assignments or go hard to meet an important deadline, make it a point to also plan in (and take) the following recovery time. For me it’s weekdays versus weekends. Find out what it is for you.

When you take a recovery time, do it fully. Athletes don’t practice during their recovery period. You shouldn’t either. Stay away from work, emails and texts during that time. Come back afterwards, refreshed and stronger.

Be More Effective – Week 19: Say ‘No’ the Right Way

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We all have lots on our plates. By design, we have more things we could do, than what we can actually deliver in the given time. That forces us to make prioritizations and double down on the most impactful things.

With that, it’s important to know how to say ‘no’. Here is how I say ‘no’ if I need to. And how I appreciate other’s saying know, so that I can manage around it.

Saying ‘no’ the right way

It’s ok to say ‘no’. In fact, people expect you to be honest enough to say ‘no’ if you will not be able to do something.

It’s not ok to say ‘yes’, but then fail to follow through on your promises or to raise the flag the last-minute.

Say ‘no’ early. Help people understand why you need to say ‘no’. Offer alternatives. Escalate quickly if plans change.

So how do you say ‘no’ the right way?

Start with the ‘why’ (as always)

Explain why you cannot do something. Explain what else you need to do during the same time and why you think that is more important. Provide the background so that others can follow your decision.

If you need to say ‘no’ to your boss, explain to her how you are prioritizing and why you think another task is more important. If she doesn’t agree, list the things that are competing for your time. Ask which one you should drop instead.

Don’t just take on an additional task, hoping you will be able to deliver it without knowing when you would do that feat. Most people prefer an honest push-back over a best of intentions but unrealistic commitment that won’t be followed through.

Understand timelines

Not everything needs to happen right now. In fact, very few things are truly urgent, although many are perceived or presented as urgent.

Ask for when a task is due. Check your calendar and priorities and see when you can fit it in. Offer that plan and check for agreement.

Be realistic and ask people for true timelines. Many people will buffer when they really need something. Ask them to give you the real deadline, but then also make sure that you will be ready by that time. Otherwise you just teach them to add additional buffers in the future.

Offer alternatives

Try to find alternatives if priorities and timelines don’t line up. Maybe you cannot do the update this week because you need to work on an important paper for the team, but your coworker can take the work off your shoulder this time? Maybe the project update this week is not as urgent as it appears and it will be covered anyway in your more thorough update that is coming two weeks from now. Maybe the offsite follow-up can wait a week since you have blocked some dedicated follow-up time next week anyway.

Understand the true urgency and then plan for it. Find alternatives if things don’t fit but need to get done anyway.

For whatever plan, timeline or alternatives you offer – make sure you actually plan and block time for it!

Escalate early if plans change

Only one thing is worse for a manager than a team member who comes the day before a deadline to tell you that he won’t get the work done in time: a team member who tells you the day off.

As soon as you realize that plans won’t happen as initially scheduled, you need to let everyone who counts on your deliverable know. Give a heads-up as early as possible. Have checkpoints ahead of your deadline so that you yourself will know right away if things get out of control.

Escalate early! Given enough time to react, there is almost always another solution. If you only learn about an issue the last-minute, there is usually little that can be done.

Similarly, if you need to de-prioritize or completely drop work that you had initially planned, you need to let everyone who is waiting on you know as quickly as possible.

Again, the ‘why’ does the trick. Explain why things needed to change, what you had to prioritize. If possible at all, offer a new timeline or another solution. Check if that’s ok for the person who was counting on you. Don’t just drop the bomb, or even worse, don’t let the other person find out on their own.

Reflection: What’s on Your Worry List?

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We all have a to-do list (I assume), but do you also have a worry-list?

We are usually pretty good at tracking the things we need to do, but we often miss paying attention to risks. Those risks have a tendency to turn into issues at the worst moment and often prevent us from achieving a goal (or at least require last-minute fire fights).

Think about all the things that could go wrong. What are you worried about. Then find solutions or mitigations for each and burn down that list to zero.

It’s a good practice to start a worry-list when you start a new project. Probably even before you start a to-do list.

Get a handle on all things that could go wrong

Start listing the things that could go wrong. Look at that list from all different angles (e.g. resourcing changes, stakeholder alignment, changing assumptions, ambiguity on details and data) to make it as comprehensive as possible.

Keep adding to that list as you go deeper into the project, learn more and discover new risks and challenges. Think about all the possible worst-case scenarios and what they would mean for your goal (Special Forces teams do a similar scenario-play exercise before going into a mission).

Your worry list should contain:

  • Big risks for your goal
  • Upcoming or anticipated challenges
  • Big open questions and any areas of ambiguity

Get on a glide path to bliss

Once you have your list, make it a point and recurring check to burn down that list. Treat it like a bug list – burn down issue by issue and make sure you have a glide path to zero way before your project is due.

Be clear and understand which items on your worry list need to be resolved first and by what time. What needs to come next? What project steps do need which items to be resolved? What are the long poles that take more time to figure out?

Track risks closely so that you will spot early if a risk turns into an actual issue (dependencies to other people or teams are a great example for this).

If you don’t have one, start a worry list for your key priorities today.

Be More Effective – Week 17: Start Time Boxing

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Work and time have that funny relationship, where a given task always takes exactly as much time as you have allocated for it.

If you have planned an hour to catch up on your email, it will take an hour. If you have planned 30 mins, then you most likely will get just as much done. If you give yourself an afternoon to clean the yard, it will take an afternoon. If you give yourself the whole weekend it will surly take that long (and you likely won’t even get finished).

Even worse, if you don’t set a time limit, chances are that you will keep on working (or being distracted), without ever getting the job done.

Set your self an aggressive time limit and then get the job done in that time.

If you set yourself an aggressive time limit to get a job done, you box it into a certain space in your calendar. You time box.

Time boxing (if you took an aggressive time frame) will make you prioritize. It will help you focus on getting the job done and prevent you from getting distracted because you feel you have all the time in the world. You’re on a clock, you have to be efficient. Because you have to be efficient you will be efficient.

Also plan a little break time after your time box. Focus and push but know that you will be able to let go and relax a little afterwards.

Find what timeframes work for you. Few people get a meaningful amount of things done in periods shorter than 30 mins. It just takes a while to get mentally organized and started. Likewise our concentration tends to go down after an hours and it is usually a good idea to take a break.

Notice when you can no longer keep up the concentration and take a break. When I feel that I get inefficient in the evening, I will go home. There might be work left, but I will be more effective and efficient the next morning. At that stage an hour sleep is worth more than an hour pretend-work.

Reflection: Don’t Get Stuck in End-Goal Obsession

computer-767776_1920We are all too often focused (fixated) on the end goal and forget about the necessary individual steps that lead us there. Since we don’t know exactly how to reach our goals, we don’t make progress and get increasingly frustrated.

The problem is that most individuals, leaders and businesses focus on output metrics and try to improve them. At Amazon I’ve learned to focus on improving input metrics instead. It’s a powerful shift in mindset if you want to have true impact.

Focus on the things you can manage. Measure inputs and real-time metrics rather than outputs. Design your metrics to support your long-term plan, not short-term gains.

The problem with output metrics

Output metrics (e.g. profit, user base, user retention, downloads) are the outcomes that a business wants to achieve and the ultimate goal is to improve them as much as possible.

The only issue with that is, that output metrics or business outcomes are the result of many right or wrong actions that have already been taken and many right or wrong decisions that have already been made in the past. It’s very hard to look at a lagging profit or user metric and figure out what to do specifically. And by the time the output metric is lagging, it’s in most cases also too late to course correct anyway.

Input metrics help shape outcomes

The better metrics to look at are input metrics. Input metrics are measurements of the things that need to go right in order to generate great outcomes. At Amazon we focus on input metrics first and foremost.

For example, if you build a new app and want to grow your user base quickly and sustainably, you should not spend all your energy looking at the number of users. Probably you shouldn’t look at that at all for the first few months. Instead you need to get your inputs in shape. For instance, is your product what users want (what’s your app’s rating in the store, what are the negative feedbacks from users)? Are your marketing campaigns effective (what are click-through rates, how is your conversion rate for downloads and sign-ups)?

Focus on inputs more than on the outputs when you look at the funnel. Input metrics are early warnings. They are also much more actionable than output metrics. It’s much easier to react on leading click-through rates or customer feedback about insufficient UX, than to look at low usage numbers and guess what might be wrong.

Focusing on inputs sets you up for the long run

Too much focus on output metrics can also incentivize you to make bad long-term decisions in order to gain short-term benefits (just look at Wall Street to get an abundance of examples). Focusing on input metrics will guide you to build the right systems and set the right priorities for long-term growth.

I saw an example for that conflict just recently during MBA interviews. I asked candidates how they would decide which of two prices (same product, different suppliers, different pricing) they would offer to a customer. Most candidates will provide the standard answer: “the price that offers the best margin and thus the best profit for the company as long as it’s within the constraints (buying power) of the customer”. That answer maximizes the output metric (profit).

If you focus on input metrics, the above is the wrong answer (and btw, don’t give that answer in an Amazon interview). Your input metric is to have lots of happy returning customers who trust you. If customers are happy, return often and trust you, they will make great business with you over time. The right answer is to “always offer the best price to the customer”. It’s the better long-term strategy and it will drive the right outcomes. That’s why at Amazon customer obsession always comes first.

Closing with a non-business example

To drive home the point, I want to close with a non-business example.

As you know by now, I care a lot about living a healthy life. And I believe in measuring progress.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” – Peter Drucker

In the past I did track my progress on outcomes like my weight, my overall fitness (how do you even define that?) my energy levels and so on. You get the idea. The problem is that those ‘metrics’ change slowly and are pretty hard to influence directly since they are the result of many things playing together.

In recent years I changed my focus to a small set of input metrics: (1) exercise every single day, (2) sleep 8 hours a day and (3) drink 2 liters of water every day. Those metrics are simple, they are accurate on a daily basis and I know exactly what to do if I miss any of them. They are also very easy to track on my Fitbit or Apple watch.

You might guess it already, but since having that focus I saw great improvements on my fitness, weight, energy and general feeling of wellbeing without actually focusing on any of those outcome metrics specifically.

Be More Effective – Week 16: Take Time Management to the Next Level

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Do you know how you spend your time through the week? Do you really know? If I would ask you, could you tell me how much of your time you have spent on each of the different topics you care about?

Most people have a general guesstimate but don’t know for sure. Most people are also dead wrong with their guesses.

If you don’t track your time you cannot manage it.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” – Peter Drucker

If you want to become more proactive and deliberate with how you spend your time and attention, you need to be intentional about it. You need to decide what your time should be spent on, measure how you actually spend time, and then take corrective action if those two measures don’t align.

Decide how you should spend your time. Track how you actually spend it. Adjust where needed. Rinse and repeat.

It’s actually fairly easy to be more intentional about our time:

1. Make a plan. The first step to more intentional time control is to decide how you should spend your time. What are the different categories that you care about, and what percentage of time should you spend on each? For example, some of my categories are ‘people management’, ‘planning’, ‘execution’, ‘hiring’, and so on.

2. Measure your actual time allocation. Once you have a plan, you need to gather data. Measure how you actually spend your time. You can do this in a dedicated time log or use categories in a calendar that you already use. It requires almost zero effort to categorize meetings that are already on your calendar. Same for times that you had already blocked to focus on your priorities. Now all you need to do is to fill in the time in between, for example when you caught up on email. I would guess for a typical knowledge worker 80% of your time is already on your calendar anyway. Take an inventory for everything, including the times when you procrastinate, otherwise your time log is useless.

3. Don’t stop at measuring. Block time for the things that are important for you. When you see that the times that are scheduled by others run out of boundaries, block some work time off before others block the time for you.

4. Check daily and adjust as you go. Do a quick visual check every day. Look more thoroughly back and forward once a week. Adjust as you need it. If you use color coding for your categories, it will be easy to get a good sense with just a quick glance.
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5. Report out and hold yourself accountable. Once a month run a report. If you use Outlook all you need to do is to export your calendar into a CSV file and then copy the data into Excel. Below is a link to a template that you can use to run some reports and graphical analysis on your raw data. Track your time allocation over time. Are you trending in the right direction?
Time allocation TEMPLATE
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6. Update your categories. Don’t be stuck with the categories you picked a while ago. Adjust what you track as your priorities change. Update your categories as you want to drive new and different behaviors. You should do this at least once a quarter. For example I recently added the category ‘deep work’ when I realized that I got drawn into too many tactical directions.

Here are some pointers that can help you find the right categories:

  • Your job description
  • What you need to improve and your growth opportunities
  • What you are passionate about
  • How your mentors or role models think about their time

Time management is actually fun! It takes only little energy if you align it with the tools you already use and it will teach you a lot about how you spend your days and energy.

The key is to pick categories that make sense for the outcomes that you want to achieve. Pick categories that will teach you interesting insights about your days and your subconscious preferences. My categories won’t work for you, you need to find your own!

Be More Effective – Week 18: Declare War on Procrastination and Wasted Time

Did you check Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn updates today? Did you play a game on your phone? For how long? Did you wonder where the time went? Did you feel better and more satisfied afterwards or did it leave a little sour taste in your mouth?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s ok to use social media and play games. As long as you do it deliberately. In martial arts we learn that the key to everything is to make conscious decisions, take deliberate action and be aware of what’s going on.

Make conscious decisions, take deliberate action and be aware of the time you spend.

If you feel like playing a game, do so for all means. But decide before, how long you want to play and be deliberate as to what else you will not do in order to play that game. Make a conscious decision to not go in the yard to smell flowers because you want to play that game for 30 mins.

Do not just do those things so that you don’t have to tackle a chore you didn’t want to do.

Years ago, Uli and I would watch TV in the evenings. We would sit down, hop across channels, watch shows that we only halfway liked and endured commercials. Since we rarely found something that was truly satisfying we kept looking for much of the evening and went to bed way to late, only to be groggy and cranky the next morning. We don’t have cable anymore. On weekends we often watch one movie with our kids (one for the weekend) and have a lot of fun doing so. Otherwise the screen stays off.

Same for social media. A few years ago, I used to spend a lot of time on Facebook feeds or news outlets (the real ones, not all the made-up fake news). I hardly ever got satisfied and I almost never felt better. Now I get up in the morning, take a shower and go to work right away. As a result, I come home to my kids a little earlier in the evening. I don’t miss anything, but gain a lot. I do check Facebook on Saturday mornings, but I do it deliberately (I might even stop that, since the news feed gets worse every time).

Decide how you want to spend your time. Set a limit. Track the limit. Don’t just do it to have an excuse to be lazy. If you want to be lazy, make it deliberately and proudly.

In the beginning it can help to set yourself screen time limits. Monitor how you do spend time and decide what it should be. Write it down. Then start controlling your time. Turn of the screen. Cancel your cable subscription.

Only do what gives you real longterm pleasure – it’s likely not your screen.

However, please do get me right. If you love Facebook, a game, a TV show and get pleasure and satisfaction from it every time you watch it, please do so. Likewise procrastination doesn’t only come in the form of digital media. You might as well procrastinate fiddling around in the house because you don’t want to get yourself to the office work. Doing dishes has so much more appeal during tax season than in the months after you turned in your taxes.

Control your procrastinations. Do them deliberately (or not at all).