Be More Effective – Week 27: Insist on Forward Momentum

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Few people like meetings. That’s not because we don’t like spending time with smart people, it’s because most meetings don’t really move things forward. Instead, very often they feel much more like energy and time drains. How often did you come out of meetings energized because you felt that you had made a big step forward and now have a clear path to success?

Many of the meetings we find in our daily business routines are what I would call ‘circular brainstormings’. Instead of moving forward on a given topic in subsequent meetings, we tend to revisit previous assumptions and decisions and fall back into discussions we had already closed in the meeting before. That leads us to needing another follow-up meeting to close out what we tried to accomplish in the first meeting, but failed because we needed to spend too much time on baselining (again).

We all lose a LOT of time in those meetings.

Circular brainstormings

Circular brainstormings happen when:

  • New attendees join the group and think they need to be caught up during the meeting at the expense of everyone else.
  • Attendees don’t remember what was discussed last time and need to re-invent definitions and previous decisions.
  • It’s unclear what the expected outcomes and deliverables of the meeting are, and the team tries to make them up on the fly.
  • Everyone just has too much fun brainstorming and not much desire to get to the point where concrete action items and follow-ups will get assigned.

Circular brainstormings happen if we as leaders don’t interject and force ‘forward momentum’. Groups have a tendency for circular brainstorming since it’s a lot of fun, only requires much easier ‘pie in the sky’ dreaming and high-level what-ifs, instead of concrete action plans and ownership. Most importantly, it doesn’t require commitment to action.

Forward momentum

As leaders we need to hold ourselves and our teams accountable to have meetings with ‘forward momentum’. And yes, I include myself, since unchecked, we all have the same tendencies.

A couple of things that help with ‘forward momentum’ are:

  1. Protecting the baseline – When we exit a meeting we made certain decisions and assumptions based on deep discussions. As we go into the follow-up meeting, we need to recap briefly and then fiercely protect that baseline. Unless there are earth-shattering new insights, we cannot re-open decisions, discussion, definitions that were previously locked. Forward momentum means building on what was established before, not starting all over again from scratch every single time. This also includes decisions that were made in other groups if the meeting is to further define details of a broader direction that was already set (if you were given a direction, don’t re-invent the strategy).
  2. Two minute rule – We need to hold attendees accountable to be informed what was discussed and decided before. If people are new, they can be caught up offline, but not at the cost of the group’s time. We cannot have 20 people in a room to educate one person. If a discussion gets sidetracked because someone missed previously discussed topics, that catch-up needs to be taken offline unless it can be resolved in 2 mins (an those 2 mins include follow-up questions).
  3. Know what success looks like – Every meeting needs to have an agenda. But every meeting also needs to have clearly defined outcomes (unless it’s an update meeting). What decisions will we have made at the end of the meeting? What artifacts will we have produced and shared at the end? Having those clearly defined outcomes can help to keep everyone on track and will keep the meeting owners accountable to maintain forward momentum.
  4. Lock the baseline for the next meeting – In order to protect the baseline in the next meeting (see above), you first need to establish that baseline. At the end of each brainstorming and decision meeting, we need to be clear and explicit as to what we have decided and assume that as facts and truths for following meetings. We need to be clear as to what is still ambiguous and needs further investigation. We need to make two steps forward every time, not two steps forward and one step back.

Try it out! Be courageous and drive the meetings you attend forward. If you cannot break the loop and the group insists on circular brainstorming, pack your stuff, leave and do something productive.

 


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:

 

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

 

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Be More Effective – Week 26: Make Quick Decisions and Execute them

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I really like the Getting Things Done (GTD) framework. However, I think it’s a little bit excessive in many parts. Here’s my simplified version that I use every day.

Write it all down in one place. Prioritize and then block time to focus on the tasks that are most important. Rinse and repeat.

Write every task down as it comes to mind

Write everything down so you don’t have to worry about it anymore and won’t spend mental energy on remembering it.

Use only one list, otherwise you will spend all your time looking for your task lists. I prefer electronic lists (Omnifocus) since they are easy to group, reprioritize and rearrange. However paper works just fine as well. Your Choice.

Putting everything down right away frees your mind, saves you mental energy and lets you focus on what you’re doing right now, not what you will need to do in the future.

It’s also a nice feeling to tick off the things you have accomplished. Looking at a long list of completed and ticked off tasks is much more gratifying than hustling all day and really being sure what you have done at the end of the day.

Do quick things right away

There’s the 2 min rule: if something requires less than 2 mins to complete, do it right away. Don’t write it down, don’t postpone it for later, just do it.

The quick email response that only requires a short sentence – write it right away as you triage your emails. The grocery purchases that you bring into the kitchen – put them away, don’t let them sit on the counter. Your dirty dishes – just put them in the dishwasher right after you finished your meal.

Prioritize what needs to get done now

I’m sure there is a lot on your list. All is important, but not all is equally important, and of the important things only few are urgent.

Don’t just do what you stumble upon on your list. Prioritize what needs to get done NOW. What is the most important thing right now? What can wait.

Also be sure that you understand the difference between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’. We can spend our whole life doing urgent stuff, but only little of that is really important looking back. Understand the difference. Spend most of your time on important things, not the ones that seem urgent.

Block time to focus on important tasks

Block time for the things that require time and focus. The things that you marked as important on your list. Pick the most important ones, assess how much you can achieve in a given time and then block that time. Don’t just rely on doing them “some time this week”. They are important, block the time.

You did the easy tasks right away (2 min rule), which means the remaining important task will require dedicated time. You will not magically find that time, you will need to make room for it.

Revisit and update your priorities

You tick off a lot of things from your list. At the same time the importance or urgency of others will change. Your circumstances will change. If you’re lucky some of your tasks will even get solved by themselves.

As your priorities change, make it a point to revisit your list on a regular basis. Update priorities as needed. Pick the list of things you want to accomplish in the next day or week and block time for them.

I do that exercise every Friday morning and go into the weekend with a clear plan of what’s coming the next week. That frees my mind to focus on family and hobbies on the weekend rather than having to worry what I might have forgotten at work.

Here is my checklist for you: ‘Best of GTD’

Organize and plan out

  • Write down your tasks right away so you don’t need to worry about them anymore
  • Prioritize once a week and decide which ones you’re going to tackle

Do it, don’t procrastinate and revisit (the 4Ds):

  • Do – do it right away if it takes less than 2 mins or else plan some time to do it
  • Delegate – if someone else should do it, delegate it right away, give the other person the opportunity to have time for the task
  • Defer – if it’s not important, defer it to a place that you revisit infrequently; chances are you will discard it the next time you revisit
  • Drop/discard – if it’s not important, just discard the taks; and don’t feel bad about it

My own additon: Get clean Fridays

  • Get to inbox zero on Fridays
  • Schedule your calendar for the next week
  • Prioritize your to do list and pick what you want to tackle the following week

Then stop worrying for the weekend. Start the weekend clean and without work obligations.

 


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:

 

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

 

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Reflection: A Special Note on Burn Out

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We talked about different aspects and approaches to increase efficiency and control of your priorities. Those habits are useful for anyone, but consciously and consistently applying them is even more critical if you are working in an environment that is high stress or even conducive to burnout.

Burnout creeps on you and it is not pretty when it gets you. It also takes much more effort to cure it than to prevent it. In the following, I’ll provide a shortlist of principles that have worked for me in such situations in the past. They won’t work universally, but some of them might do the trick for you. If you feel stressed right now, give them a try and see what they can do for you.

I initially called those ideas ‘hacks’ to sound trendy, but changed it to ‘principles’ to make a point: those are not quick and easy fixes. You need to be serious, deliberate and consistent about them. You have to put in energy to make them work. And you need to keep doing it every day.

My principles will move on a spectrum from purpose (to keep your passion and happiness) to time management (to actually make room for all that purpose stuff).

Protect your personal passions

The most important rule comes first:

Know what you care about outside of work. Set time for those activities. Block it on your calendar and then protect it fiercely.

It is important to create a balance between your work and your passions outside of work. There is always more to be done at work, thus having a tendency to slowly creep into your personal life to the point where you suddenly realize that something is fundamentally wrong. Death by a thousand paper cuts. Don’t let that happen.

Know what’s important to you and then create rules to protect it. Those rules need to be yours. Different things work for different people.

For me, family comes first. With that, I have a rule that I don’t work once I’m home. I don’t work on weekends. I might come in early or stay later if I need to, but when I’m home, I’m home. There are a few cases where I deliberately decide that I want to finish something on a weekend, but I have a very high bar for those exceptions.

Create the moments you care about at work

We talked about making time for your personal passions. The same applies to your work passions:

Don’t get lost in tactical work. Set focus times where you do the things that matter to you and that align with your passion.

We all chose our jobs for a reason. We chose them because we are deeply passionate about core components of the role. At the same time, every job comes with a bunch of things we are not quite as excited about. The routine, the day to day, the reactive.

We need to do those things, but we must make sure that we don’t get lost in them and forget what actually excites us. Just as for your personal passions, you must block time for the things that get you excited at work. Again, it’s very personal to you what that is, but make sure it doesn’t get lost in the daily ‘rat race’.

For me, my primary motivators are working with and coaching great people. I also love to solve problems and build products. I’m blocking time for those deliberately. Being a data guy, I even color code my calendar to get reminded every time I look at my schedule if I’m striking a balance that works for me.

Change your mindset

We all have to do things we don’t particularly care about much. After all, we’re not at a party, we get paid to do a job for our company. However, usually there is a reason for the things we do:

Try to understand the reason. Discover the meaning. It makes a huge difference!

There is a reason for everything. While certain tasks might seem tedious and unnecessary, in most cases they serve an important and distinct purpose.

For example, at Amazon, we write a lot of documents and we constantly look at a lot of data. Very often I see the question “why do we need to do this” in people’s eyes. There is a reason. Looking at data helps you understand what’s going on, reflect and learn what happened and why. Then you can develop the right action plan to correct what you’re doing moving forward. Writing documents helps to sharpen your thinking and then to sell your ideas to others to get the proper support to make them happen.

If you look at the true purpose of why things are done, you can find much more satisfaction in doing them. There is ample research that purpose and passion are not defined by what you do, but how you think about it.

Pace yourself

Sometimes we have to push hard and go late. Make sure you don’t make it ‘always’.

There are times when you need to push hard and give it your all (and maybe more). But there are also times when you can recharge your batteries a little. Know when you need to do which.

It’s important to understand when you need to push hard and when you don’t. None of us can go full throttle all the time over an extended period of time.

Push hard when you need to, but also recognize when you have a period where you can recharge batteries. This is not about slacking because that will only catch up with you. It’s about knowing when you have to do 120% and when 90% is just fine. Remove the pressure from yourself when you can and don’t feel bad about it.

When I have the occasional day, when I can go home at 4 pm and enjoy a sunny evening with my family, I cherish that time and don’t feel a tiny bit guilty for not working late.

Treat it like a project

So with all that blocking of time, how do you actually get stuff done?

Treat your work day and tasks like a project. Prioritize, scope, focus, time-box. Don’t idle at work, rather focus and spend your idle time on the things you care about.

We need to treat our work tasks like projects. We need to deliberately manage them instead of just keep going until we will be done at some undefined point in the future, with an undefined amount of time and effort invested to get there.

Start your project now and don’t procrastinate it, even if the start scares you. Every journey starts with the first step.

Avoid unnecessary rework. Put your best foot forward and get it right the first time. If you don’t, learn what was missing and make super-sure you will get it right the next time you have a similar problem to solve. Nothing eats more time and energy (and is more frustrating) than repeated rework and fixing of the same issues.

Time-box how much time you spend on something (after all you want to free up time for the passions we talked about above). Prioritize what really needs to get done versus what just seems urgent or important. If the work is too much, see if you can scope it down without harming the overall outcome. Can you remove unnecessary ‘bells and whistles’? Time-box, and then be extremely focused in that time-box to deliver your best work most efficiently. Treat it like an engineering ‘dev spike’. When you hit the end of your time-box, stop. You need to train yourself to take your focus times serious.

If it’s still too much, it’s ok to say ‘no’ to things. Just know and be clear why you say ‘no’ and what trade-offs you’re making. Communicate the reasons and trade-offs. Communicate them early. It’s ok to not be able to tackle something if everyone knows about it and has enough time to come up with a mitigation plan (even better if you can propose a mitigation plan yourself). It’s not ok to let something slip past the deadline and then announce that you didn’t have time.

Be focused, cut out the slack. Rather than idling at work, double down, be your most focused self and then spend your freed-up time on the things you care about at work and at home.

 


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:

 

Capture

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

 

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Be More Effective – Week 25: Take Control, Don’t Burn Out

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Burnout comes from two key issues: the feeling that you cannot control what you need to work on (i.e. not being connected to ones’ work) and the feeling that you can never get on top of all the things you should be doing (i.e. the feeling of not achieving).

Take control (or at least feel like you do). Consciously set your priority for the day. Work around things that control you and find the pockets where you can do the things that matter to you.
Set realistic goals and accept that there will always be unfinished work at the end of the day.

Gain control over your work

One of the biggest contributors to burnout (in my mind) is the feeling that you have endless tasks on your plate and not enough control over how you spend your time.

To a large degree you can change that situation and feeling. Some of us have more control over our work lives, some less, but we can all find the pockets we can control and develop a mindset that helps us feel more ‘on top of things’.

If you just go through your day and wait for others to dictate what you will be doing, you will very likely run into either boredom or burnout fairly quickly. Rather, get clarity on what is important to you, and what you need to do to achieve those outcomes or that kind of activities.

Set time aside for those activities as a ‘passion-balance’ for the work that gets pushed into your day by others. Even activities that get dictated by others can get a different spin if you approach them from a different angle. For example you can look at an activity you need to do as just that, or you can see it as an opportunity to hone a specific skill of your’s or teach others by developing best practices.

It’s ok to not get to the bottom of your task list

Chances are that you have more work that you should be doing than what you can actually fit into a realistic work day and work week.

List out the things that you need to do in priority order. Then assign realistic time to them. Knowing what needs to be done and how much time each task requires allows you to set realistic targets for the day and the week.

Work towards those targets and measure success against that specific set of pre-defined activities, not your complete list of things you should do.

As you work through your list, tick off everything that you have achieved, including the things that were dictated by others. Often when we are busy with lots of competing priorities and to-dos we look back at the day and feel like we didn’t accomplish anything. Having a list with lots of check marks helps you realize how much you have actually achieved.

Know what you can control and what you cannot

Acknowledge when you get sidetracked by unplanned asks and fire fights. Take them as priorities for the day and consciously count them as wins when you’re done. They don’t add to your existing priorities, they just replace some of them. Don’t try to now achieve everything plus the added activities.

Some days, all you can achieve is to deal with an escalation, even if you had planned differently. Other days, you can spend most of your time and your energy on the priorities you picked. Don’t punish yourself by feeling bad in either case.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Serenity prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr

 


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:

 

Capture

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

 

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Be More Effective – Week 24: Avoid Fire Fights

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Have you heard someone say before: “I do my best work when I’m under pressure with tight timelines”? I call BS on that, it’s just a sign of bad time management, poor planning and lack of discipline.

Don’t wait to the last-minute. Plan ahead. Finish your tasks as soon as possible.

While waiting to the last-minute increases the pressure on you and will help you to stop procrastinating, it is also immensely stressful. Especially if any additional unplanned but urgent work gets added on top.

Work under pressure is not your best work, even if you might think so because you have trained yourself over the years to only take last-minute work serious.

Rather take control. Plan out your work and try to get it done as early as possible. That allows you to do the work when you actually have time. It will also avoid, that you might end up in a situation where two urgent tasks (one known, the other one unexpected) will have the same deadline.

Getting on tasks early increases your degrees of freedom and greatly reduces your stress levels. All it takes is a little planning ahead and some discipline.

Skip the fire fights, rather train your muscle for discipline. Like any other ability or trait, discipline is just a habit that can be learned, trained and strengthened.

Avoid the stress of last-minute and the mistakes and extra cleanup work of rushed deliverables. Get ahead of your tasks and priorities.

Be More Effective – Week 22: Inbox ZERO, Regain Control of Your Inbox

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Almost everyone I talk to is struggling with email overload. Interesting enough that is regardless of whether they receive 10 emails a day or 100. In my different roles, I have typically received about 100 emails a day, not counting discussion groups, newsletters, advertising or spam (which all get filtered out automatically before they reach my inbox).

I always make it a point to have my inbox down to 1-2 screens at the end of the day and to Zero on Friday by the time I leave the office.

‘Inbox zero’ is my golden rule for the weekend. And while it sounds like a tough challenge, it’s actually very achievable. Decades of working at Microsoft and Amazon, with email as the primary tool of communication, have taught me how to do this.

Bad news first

As you follow the tech news, every couple of months you will hear about a groundbreaking new tool / technology that will finally “kill email” and make communications so “much more effective”.

I hate to break it to you, but that’s not going to happen. The amount of information that is shared is the problem, not the tool. When you jump on a new tool, you will find some relief for a while because no one else is there yet. Of course you get less spam and more focused communications, if only you and your best buddy are on that new cool thing. Once the tool has enough audience to be actually usable, the volume of conversations will feel unmanageable again. A couple examples throughout IT history are email, SMS, IM, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Yammer, Slack,…

The only things that truly work are your process and discipline.

Keep it simple (but keep to it)!

The good news is that this information problem can be solved. All it requires is a plan and a little discipline.

Keep it simple and stick to it.
Finish easy stuff right away, mark things that take more time and block that time on your calendar.
Delete everything that isn’t immediate relevant. Move it to one archive folder if you have separation anxiety.
Don’t sort messages you want to keep into many folders – search is your friend.

For me simplicity is key. If a process is not simple, I will likely not stick to it over a longer period of time. That’s why I stopped using categories and lots of folders for to-dos and elaborate filing. In most times, it would not be clear where something belongs and I would have trouble finding it again later.

All I need is my inbox (contains everything I still have to take care of), a follow-up flag (marks things that need a little more time) and a single archive folder (to get rid of anything that is done or not relevant right now).

You don’t need more than one folder to keep things that are already done. Search is awesome. Trust it! (Or get a better email system if your search doesn’t work.)

Rule 1: When you touch it, triage it

When you touch an email, triage it (or even better resolve it). Don’t ever go to the same email twice to decide what to do with it. Make that decision right there on the spot.

Every email that you receive typically falls into one of 4 categories:

  • 20% – Can be answered or delegated in less than a minute.
  • 10% – Needs more time to follow-up.
  • 40% – You shouldn’t have received this in the first place.
  • 30% – Is informational but you might just as well live a happy life without that information.

Rule 2: Delete everything that you don’t really care about

This includes old newsletters that you signed up for in a previous life, the org updates that don’t even remotely relate to what you’re doing, the email that you got CCed on without anyone knowing why, or even the follow-up that someone else in your team is taking care of (delegation is king!).

Get those out of your inbox right away!

Tip: If you are anxious about deleting emails that you might want to get back to later, just move them to your (single) archive folder. I am one of those anxious folks and I use that workaround. I still wait for the day when I get back to any of those emails. But hey, storage is cheap and unlimited email is the norm these days (I have a free 50GB mailbox and, as much as I try, can’t get it fuller than 15%).

Rule 3: Answer quick things while you look at them

There is no value in not answering an easy email right away. You have just spent some time reading it. Do you want to spend that time again?

If it’s less than a minute, answer right away. And then move that email out of your inbox into your archive folder (or delete it – depending on how adventurous you feel).

Rule 4: Block time for responses that need a deeper follow-up

Some emails require more thinking, a longer write-up, some research, or just some emotional distance because you are so enraged.

Flag them for follow-up and stop reading (you will have forgotten the details by the time you actually follow-up). Move on to the next unread email that needs to get triaged.

Remember to block time on your calendar for when you will go through all flagged emails (and only those!) and get them done.

Rule 5: If you think you will read it within the week, then keep it (for now)

The last category is the most controversial.

There are some emails that seem to be interesting enough to read in a spare moment but just not important enough or too long to read right now. (I’m guilty of sending my wife a lot of these – my official apologies for that.)

Sometimes those spare moments will come and you will discover interesting new things. Oftentimes you won’t find a spare moment and those emails will pile up (the ones that don’t have a flag and are marked as read but still linger around in your inbox).

Here’s my bonus rule: If I didn’t have time to read them by Friday then they have to go forever. It’s a liberating feeling to bulk-move all of them into your archive folder Friday evening.

Don’t put those emails in a special folder, you will never get back to it anyway.

Approaching bliss

After this triage exercise your inbox will have shrunk dramatically. You have answered everything that was quick or urgent. You will have marked things that need more time and will know exactly what needs and what doesn’t need attention.

Everything is read and the only unread stuff are new emails that are coming in and will be triaged in your next triage session (not now!).

I try to never let that remaining list grow more than 1 or max 2 screens long. If it gets longer, delete some of the FYI emails and/or block more time for follow-ups.

For Fridays your goal should be to have zero emails in your inbox. Then just turn off your emails over the weekend and spend quality time with your family instead. Create a rule to have them moved to a separate folder so that they don’t show up in your phone’s inbox.

This will feel really good! Stick to it for a while and get motivated by the sense of control that you will gain.

Please make a deliberate difference between ‘triage’ and ‘follow-up’ mode. I make it a point to triage all of my emails first thing in the morning. So when I start my day of meetings, I have already minimized the number of surprises waiting for me. And I can feel confident not checking email throughout the day, unless I have spare time for it.

Some weeks are harder

Some weeks are harder. There are more emails coming in. You have more other things going on. You just aren’t that effective.

I simply adjust my system for that, by significantly raising the bar for emails that I keep in my inbox for ‘later reading’. If you send me something as FYI during a extra-busy week – tough luck for you (and my heartfelt apologies).

Even in crazy weeks, I hold true to my rules of (1) no more than 2 screens of emails in my inbox and (2) inbox zero on Friday afternoon.

It’s worth it

Inbox zero is a blessing! Treat yourself to it.

Get rid of the guilt, the lingering thoughts about your email, the anxiety that you might have missed something (or even worse the revelation that you actually did miss something important).

I have an empty inbox every Friday evening and it makes for an awesome start into the weekend!

Addendum: How intentional use of technology can support this system

Here’s a little tip how technology can help you stay focused on triaging versus answering. And it also helps with not re-reading the same email again and again

Triaging: use your mobile phone

Mobile phones are great for this. Use spare minutes to triage new emails on your phone. Make a triage decision after the first paragraph (reading on a small screen is a pain anyway) or provide a short (!) answer if possible.

Hold yourself back from reading long emails that you won’t answer on the spot. You can even set your email client to only show ‘unread’ emails so you won’t be tempted to re-read emails that you had already touched.

Answering: use your desktop/laptop

Respond to more complex emails when you have time at your desk (with a nice keyboard).

Don’t triage, focus only on those emails that you have marked for follow-up. Get the list down towards zero as much as possible during that time.

Intentional separation

Separating triage time from answering time will make you more effective with both. And since my proposed systems is technology-wise super simple (all it needs is the ability to flag), it will work and transfer across any email system and client.

Chose the best technology for the task to force you into the right habits!

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.