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).

Be More Effective – Week 15: Take Control of YOUR Priorities

business-3190209_1920There are many things that we should or could do. All of them will keep us busy. Few of them will have lasting impact and move us forward.

Focus on the things that matter! Prioritize what needs to get done. Plan your priorities and block time for them.

Write down YOUR priorities and what YOU need to achieve. Really write it down and make a purposeful commitment to yourself. Revisit and update that list every day. It’s a great preparation for the day while you sip your morning coffee.

Pick the 3 to 4 things that you want to achieve in the week and the 1 or 2 things that you will get down for the day. Don’t pick more, focus on what really needs to get done this week and today. Be realistic as to what you actually can get done, given the unplanned distractions that will pull on your attention and time as the day progresses.

As you write down your priorities, make sure to follow these four rules:

1. Be specific. Don’t write down ‘get more organized’, be specific and write down ‘compile a list of the things I need to fix in my backyard’.

2. Make it achievable. Don’t write down ‘declutter the house’. It will probably take a while to achieve that end goal. Be specific about the step you want to achieve today or this week, for example ‘clean up the kitchen’.

3. Block time. If you don’t block time on you calendar, other supposedly urgent things will come along and distract you. With that, your priorities will only be good intentions and when you look back at the end of the week you will be utterly frustrated. Defend that blocked time against other ‘important’ things that try to push over it.

4. Don’t forget to add time for your values. With all the things we HAVE to do, we often forget to take time for the things we WANT to do. Block time for the things that are important to you and that help you live to your values. Add them to your weekly and daily priorities. They are just as much, if not more important than everything else.

Be More Effective – Week 14: Don’t Waste your Commute

We spend many hours every week at work. For most office workers it’s 40-60 hours. Side note: folks who tell you they work more are most likely just showing off or they add a lot of inefficient time to their workdays. That is a huge chunk of our lives. We better make it count!

Step one is to make your commute count. I don’t know for you, but for me that’s another 2-3 hours on top of my work day. Every day.

Make your commute count. Triage your email, get on top of your calendar. Listen to a good audio book or to NPR. Call your parents at least once a week.

If you ride your bike to work, you can skip ahead to the next tip. You already make your commute count – you do something good for your health.

Kudos if you use the train and bus and board it early enough to secure a seat. Instead of checking Facebook, get your laptop and do some email triage. That takes time but usually doesn’t require too much deep focus. You might as well get it done before you even enter the office. Sort your calendar, get ahead of things. Know what’s coming and be aware of the fires that await you as soon as you approach your desk.

If you need to drive yourself (like I do), listen to a good audiobook. Learn something new while your mind is still fresh, empty and ready to take something in, instead of being distracted by a hundred things shouting for your attention. Don’t listen to the local radio station or the comedy show. Check out NPR podcasts or pick a good audio book.

If you don’t want to listen to a book, call your parents. They will appreciate it and years down the road you will be glad you did take the time to call them. Make it a point to do this at least once a week. Call them while you commute so you don’t have any excuse to not do it.