September 15, 2014
A Monday Morning Question
I’ll be sharing some technical posts later this week so I decided I’d make my Monday morning post a bit different. I’d like to make an observation and leave you with a question. This is a rhetorical question – not something I need to know the answer to or even want to know the answer. This is your opportunity in the quiet of your own mind to evaluate where you are and how you would truthfully answer this question for yourself. Grab a cup of coffee and take a moment.
Here’s my question. It’s not hard and it’s not difficult to understand.
Where is your focus?
Now that seems a simple question. In fact, it’s only four words. I bet you instantly answered it. You came up with something about work, or family, or friends. Maybe you didn’t. Again, I’m not interested in hearing your answer. That’s for you. But I’d like to expand the question just a bit and then ask you again how you would answer.
We have a million things begging for our attention these days. We have more channels then ever to monitor and keep up with. In reality this means we have so many more opportunities for marketers to advertise their products and push their items in our streams, our feeds, our faces. Then beyond the companies begging for our money there are other things competing for our time. We must balance not only our priorities but our energies and our efforts. Family, friends, husband, wife, children, siblings, parents, bosses, co-workers…the list is seemingly endless. So many things needing our time and our attentions. I haven’t even begun to address open source, volunteer and other non-profit areas where our time can provide immense benefits. I know, you understand already. You get my point. I’ll not elaborate or draw things out any more. Bottom line – there’s many many things which would like more of our time and attention.
With so many things in need of our abilities we can very quickly begin to lose our focus. Not our focus on which project or relationship to spend time on, but something different. We can misplace our focus. I believe it comes down to one of two options. You can place your focus on others or on yourself.
We each have unique skills and abilities which make us special and give us our worth. Some of us have a grander stage, some have a more visible role. Regardless of the size of the audience we all have talents. We have power to make a difference and we have the tools to do more. But sometimes (sometimes) we lose our sight. We lose our focus and instead of placing others before ourselves we fall prey to the selfish me-first attitude. Because we have many different demands on our time or abilities we begin to think more highly of ourselves. It’s slow, it’s sneaky and it’s dangerous.
Rather than being consumed with how everything affects us, we should spend a bit more time focused on others and how a situation might affect them. Admittedly that’s hard to do. We all want to be recognized as important and valuable. We crave the sense of appreciation we get from others and how the feeling of importance makes us feel needed. We don’t fit every need and we’re not (or shouldn’t try to be) the center of every debate, discussion, or situation.
When we work together as a team, a community, a family we have the opportunity to accomplish great things. When we focus on the common good, the common cause, and the vision we have set forth and we each look to our neighbor as our focus we empower each other. This bond strengthens relationships. This bond empowers and fuels us to do more, to be more, to become more. When we focus on others we improve something greater than ourselves and we leave a legacy.
There’s my Monday morning question for you. It’s only four words but it holds a lot of meaning. Remember, it’s rhetorical. I answered it for myself and I’m not sharing my answer. I’d love it if you did the same. Consider the question. Consider yourself and decide where you are.
Where is your focus?
September 8, 2014
Movement or Action
We all know people who are so busy they meet themselves coming as they are going. The frantic, fast-paced lifestyle tends to be a badge of honor amongst United States workers especially. If we’re ragged, worn, and constantly moving then we must be successful or at the very least critically important. But this great quote by Ernest Hemingway comes to mind frequently in those situations.
“Never mistake movement for action.”
– Ernest Hemingway
As a society (and again because of my geographic location I will focus heavily on the United States) Americans seem to have lost the concept of action and replaced it with movement. I see people who are consumed with staying busy rather than productive. Being busy is not the same as productive. Just because you’re moving doesn’t mean you are active. Or rather, just because you are moving does not mean you have taken action.
I am important
I realize staying busy gives a sense of importance, of self-worth, and of the vital role we must play within our jobs if we are so busy we cannot stop to eat. But if we are not measuring our outcomes and pointing to our performance as proof of our movement’s value then we are merely moving for the sake of moving. We’re merely being busy. Here are 3 quick ways you can check to see if you have movement or action.
Work for a purpose
The first thing I check when I am feeling extremely busy is what I am working towards. What is the purpose or goal of what i’m doing? Is there a reason why I am so busy and not just why I am busy but more importantly – what am I hoping to accomplish. And I force myself to be specific. I can’t use excuses such as, “I’ve got to keep my job” or “Someone has to do these things.” Those generic reasons are not a purpose for movement. Those generic answers are excuses.
A better purpose for movement would be something like – “I am working this much or I am this busy because I have a deadline with an investor scheduled for Monday at 9am and I must get X, Y, and Z done beforehand.” A reason like this not only proves you are moving with purpose but also helps you to refine your tasks to better accomplish the goal.
When I find myself incredibly busy I will most days evaluate my progress at the end of each day. This helps me ensure I’m actually doing something profitable. I want to work for a purpose and I want to be sure I’m not simply moving. If I am making progress on my goals then I know I am doing it right. When those times come where I get to the end of a day and feel mentally and physically exhausted but cannot point to clear progress made throughout the day I realize I’ve been moving too much.
There’s something important in that last sentence. When I get to the end of a day and cannot point to clear progress…to be able to point to progress means I must have a set of goals or a purpose to my work. Not just “make it through the day” (though sometimes I admit that sounds like a hard enough job in and of itself). But rather I must set out to accomplish clearly defined goals which will help me to arrive at my final completed work. I cannot evaluate my progress without them.
I’ll never forget the impact the father in the book Cheaper by the Dozen had on me. Frank Gilbreth was a time and motion study expert. I learned so many little ideas from that book. In fact I don’t want to go into too much detail about that now because I plan to write an entire post on him. The bottom line is simple. Always be looking for ways to improve your efficiency. I want to make sure I’m acting with a purpose and making progress, and doing all of it in the most efficient way possible. The more efficient I can become the more I can accomplish.
The goal is to be less busy and yet more productive. I want to increase my efficiency by scheduling tasks in the right order, by prioritizing my workflow and my meetings so each builds on the previous and the end result is progress and goal completion.
We all end up being busy at one point or another. We all end up moving at a ridiculously fast pace. I am certainly not speaking out against that. I’d be the worst offender of all if that were the case. Rather, I’m speaking out against movement without action. As Mr. Hemingway so aptly put we should never mistake the two. When we find ourselves the busiest this is when we should pause for a moment and evaluate ourselves. Use these three quick points to check and see if you are moving or active.
August 22, 2014
10 Tips to Get Things Done
This post is gold. I doubt many people would admit that however. More people would consider it to be similar to a visit to the dentist when you have a terrible toothache. You know you have to go but you dread going because you know what lies ahead. The problem is not that we don’t know the ways to get things done, but that we don’t want to have to implement those things.
I’m going to give you 10 quick tips to help get things done. Are these new or novel ideas? I doubt it. Is my goal that you follow all ten tips and immediately get everything done you wanted to? No. Definitely not. I want to provide 10 tips of which you might take one or two. (Do I dare even hope for 3 or more?) I hope something in this list will encourage you to do what you know you should be doing and help you get things done.
1. Make a List
This one’s a great one to get started. I made a list for this post. Making lists is a great way of organizing the jumble of things inside your head. Some people are more the list-making type than others. I admit I’m one of them. The truth remains that making a list helps the human brain put things into perspective and focus on a realistic set of tasks rather than an abstract (and mistaken) view of the size of the job.
2. Be Realistic
There’s only 24 hours in a day. And for most of us, we have to sleep for some of it. This means we have a limited amount of time in which we must get things done. Be realistic about what you can accomplish and don’t be overly ambitious. You probably won’t be able to paint the house, rebuild the fence, repair the driveway, and fix dinner all in a day. When you make a list of things to do put down small things. Small accomplishments help motivate and energize you. And you’ll see yourself making progress throughout the day.
3. Turn Off Email
Yeah, right. I know you just thought the same thing. There’s no way you could make it through 15 minutes let alone a couple hours without your email being open and checked. This one is a tricky one because I hear people claim their job requires instant and constant checking. Unfortunately I think this excuse is abused by most people. I’m guessing most of us can work two hours before responding to an email. Most things will be ok whether you answer immediately or in two hours. Try it. Maybe try it for 30 minutes, if it goes ok and nothing falls apart and the world doesn’t implode, try for an hour. You’ll be more productive. I promise.
4. Close Social Media
This one might very well be the most obvious and yet most neglected on the list. Social media is one of the biggest time drains within the workday. Studies have been done on the amount of time lost to social networking and its staggering. Close down tweetdeck (gasp), close the Facebook browser tab, and see how much more productive you’ll be. You’re not going to miss anything. It’ll be ok. Again, take it in small steps. Don’t think of it as a permanent withdrawal. Shut it down for an hour. Set a clock alarm to remind you when your hour is up and turn a negative into a positive; look forward to opening it back up when the time comes.
5. Take a Break
Wait, take a break to get things done? Yes. Sitting too long, working on a single task too long can have a counter-intuitive effect of making you less productive. You’ll naturally begin to work slower, your attention will begin to wain, and you’ll lose interest in the task. When this happens your best solution is to take a break. Studies have shown a number of different time lengths per hour you should take as breaks. I’m not going to point to a specific one but rather recommend taking a break when you need one. Be self-aware about how productive you are being and stop yourself if you need a break.
Ok, there’s five tips to get things done. Follow these and I guarantee you’ll find yourself getting more things done.
Wait! You’re right. I did say 10. Here’s the thing. Rather than overwhelming you with 10 tips all at once I’m leaving you with 5 for today. I have 5 more and I’ll publish them on Monday. But I’m practicing what I preach. I’m making a list and I’m being realistic. I want to give you an opportunity to get things done today. I want Friday to be an amazing end of the week and your weekend to be fantastic. Take these 5 tips (and come back on Monday for the other half the list).
August 7, 2014
Don’t Be Busy
I know we often hear the admonishment not to be lazy. It’s as though a slower pace and a relaxed view of life is somehow frowned upon. Typically this seems to be more prevalent in Western culture and particularly in the United States. The ideas of being a workaholic is touted as a sign of a tireless worker dedicated to their job.
Busy Does Not Show Dedication
But there’s a subtle (or not so subtle) difference here. There’s certainly something to be said for being active and involved in your work. Yes, we want to make sure that our jobs are done well and we demonstrate our commitment, but that does not necessarily mean we are emailing our co-workers, bosses, or vendors back at 11PM on a Friday night.
The School Day Mindset
In an effort to avoid being labeled as lazy I think we become obsessed with appearing busy. That’s right. Appearing busy. It’s not that we’re doing great things, but instead we’re simply doing busy work. I remember in school how much I hated it when we were assigned busy work to complete at our seats. There was no point no purpose or if there was a purpose it was extremely minor. The work was merely an exercise to keep us busy.
I’m not advocating for laziness. In fact, I am often accused of being too busy. But in reality I try not to be busy but to be something else. Here is the key point. If you only take away one thing from today’s post I want you to remember this: Being busy is not the same as being effective.
Can I repeat that for emphasis? Just because you’re busy does not automatically mean you’re effective. Sure you can quickly fill up your day with menial tasks and responsibilities. You can create busy work for yourself to do. It may appear that you are being highly productive when in fact you may simply be busy. Being busy is not a badge of honor. Being busy doesn’t allow you to accomplish your goals. Being busy just means you’re tired and feeling overworked.
Why should we not be busy?
If we focus on being effective rather than being busy there will be several positive side effects which will result. The first is easy. Being effective rather than busy means you are placing your tasks in priority and accomplishing things relevant to your goals and ultimately your job. If you are filling your time with busy work you will leave yourself less time to do those truly important things which matter far more in the long term.
Your body needs a break
Secondly, if you aren’t forcing yourself to be busy by filling your hours with those unimportant time drains then you’ll find you have a clearer head. You will be able to relax when you’re not working and you’ll feel more refreshed. When you take the time your mind and body needs to recover from a long day (week) then you’ll feel more refreshed and energized to continue working effectively. Your productivity will increase as your busyness decreases. That’s a seeming paradox. The less busy you are the more effective you become. You’ll be spending your time doing those things which really matter.
Your priorities get misplaced
Lastly, when you fill your time with busy work you leave yourself very little time to be effective. You’ll feel constantly overwhelmed because you’re not “finding the time” to get the important things accomplished. Each day those important tasks will be the ones that get pushed to the bottom of the to-do list and then bumped from one day to the next when you ultimately run out of time. Your brain is smart and it knows doing the hard things are hard. They’ll take real brainpower. It’s much simpler and easier to fill the time with menial busywork.
No, don’t be lazy
I’m certainly not advocating laziness. And I realize that sometimes being busy and being effective are one and the same. Those times when you have incredibly tight deadlines or project due dates and it requires a ridiculous level of effort. But those are the exceptions to the rule. In general I recommend be effective not busy. Being busy is not a badge of honor. Being effective is. Accomplishing your goals and feeling that sense of accomplishment is what matters most.
July 31, 2014
6 Ways Leaders Work
I’ve had opportunity to see a wide variety of leadership styles in the various open source communities and business environments I’ve joined. It’s interesting to watch how different leaders work and how they function. Each seem to have a slightly different opinion of what makes a strong leader and what character qualities are most desirable.
Of course leaders come in a variety of sizes and shapes (we’re all unique after all). And everyone has their own opinions of what makes a strong leader. Based on my experience I’d like to share 6 ways leaders work. There are of course others. I’m merely going to point to six which I’ve seen successful from personal experience watching various leaders.
One thing I’d say before beginning my list of six attributes is that I chose my title with purpose. Some would argue leaders don’t work but rather they lead. I would suggest that they are working but simply not in the same way as other team members. These tasks are definitely something which take time and effort and work. Regardless of whether you believe the leader is in the front, beside, or behind the team, a servant leader, or an outspoken forerunner these six ways still apply.
A Leader Identifies Needs and Problems
One of the ways a leader works is identifying needs and problems within a company or project. They must be able to objectively look inward and compare with competition and identify weaknesses (and strengths). I focus on the problems because its quite easy for most to see the positives and the successes. Similarly it’s easy for anyone to point at failures but identifying is more than just seeing them. Identifying implies an entire process of finding, prioritizing, and strategizing how each is handled and addressed. Some may need to be seen and ignored. Others may require immediate action. A good leader must identify each.
A Leader Recognizes Talent
Another important way a leader works in a company or community is through the process of recognizing talent in people. A leader must recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each person and help them find the best way in which they can achieve both personal success and professional success. Everyone has unique abilities and certain tasks which they will excel at performing. A strong leader pays attention to the individual. They care for the person and they work to place each person in the role which fits them. As I mentioned this is two-fold because not only must the individual find satisfaction but the overall business or community goals must also be accomplished. Finding the right fit can be a difficult and yet highly rewarding task.
A Leader Motivates and Inspires
A leader has to be always ready to motivate and inspire. When a need or problem has been identified the leader must be then able to motivate and inspire people to solve those problems. It’s not enough to simply identify problems or point to failures. A leader must be capable of motivating solutions to be found. When a leader helps the individual find tasks which suit their needs they also inspire them to make things happen. There is a sense of excitement conveyed by a leader who is capable of motivating and inspiring others.
A Leader Listens
A leader is not always the loudest voice in the room. Sometimes the best leaders are the ones who recognize the value in quiet listening. Participating in active listening (thinking about what’s being said and applying the information) is an important character quality which I’ve seen demonstrated by good leaders. They take the time to listen to the people around them. This helps them identify problems, recognize talent, and also learn how to better inspire people. Listening is often neglected in favor of talking. Strong leaders don’t just shout orders and point the way.
I still remember watching a man I considered a great leader stop before going to an important meeting to listen to an idea of someone else. He didn’t need to stop and I wondered whether he really had the time, but he was making a point. Each person matters and each opinion is important. A good leader listens as much as they talk.
A Leader Shares The Vision
One of the most exciting parts of a leader’s job is sharing the vision. A leader doesn’t have to necessarily create the vision, but many times they have the role of sharing that vision with others. This involves demonstrating a passion for the goals and the plan to accomplish them. I’ve heard it said that excitement can be contagious. A good leader is highly contagious. They want others to see what they see and they want to share the excitement.
This task of sharing a vision can be a difficult job at times. The energy required can be quite exhausting over time, and secondly sometimes personal opinions may differ from the vision. A good leader is able to put personal differences aside when the vision has been decided upon.
A Leader Supports and Encourages
A leader must be always ready to support and encourage those around them. They must endure with resolve. I think this one is sometimes a hard one for leaders. If you look at the previous points a leader must maintain excitement and share a vision, they must motivate and inspire, and they need to actively listen. these are all very physically and emotionally draining. But a leader must continue. Leaders must exhibit endurance to continue the encouragement throughout the project or job. A leader must keep going; past the initial rush and excitement which naturally comes with a new project or a new goal.
A leader must also be a cheerleader. Leaders listen and identify ways to support others through words, through actions, or through connection with others. This task is equally difficult because it requires persistence and patience.
I hope you have been able to identify some ways in which you are a strong leader and even maybe a few ways in which you can improve. I know just writing my thoughts down I see several areas where I can improve in my leadership skills. One this is quite evident as we look through these 6 ways. Leaders definitely work. They may not be completing the tangible tasks identified as milestones on a project but they are absolutely critical to its success.
What ways do you relate to as an individual? What are your leadership strengths? What are your weaknesses? Being able to define those ways you can improve is the first step to becoming a better leader.
July 3, 2014
The Ultimate Productivity Tool
If you’re anything like me you have a list of tasks a mile long you need to complete. This list might exist in your email, your calendar, or possibly even just a piece of paper you’ve scribbled things down on. Bottom line, you have tasks. I have a secret to share with you. The ultimate productivity tool.
Did I get your attention? Here it is. You. That’s right. The ultimate resource at your disposal for getting things done is quite simply yourself. Why is it then so difficult to get things done and to be productive? Why do we spend so much time searching for the perfect app or the perfect tool to do the job? We seem to hope as if by some miracle we’ll find the project management tool that organizes things perfectly! (and even do the work for us)
Procrastinating Is Easy
I have found myself doing the same thing. Procrastinating but pretending I’m actually doing something useful. Productivity means not procrastinating. Sounds simple but as humans we’re extremely good at fooling ourselves. (Sometimes it seems we only fool ourselves). We procrastinate by claiming we’re looking for a better tool. Again, the tool is not going to get the job done for you. The tool merely organizes information.
Of course you need to use tools and you need to be organized and yes, there are different tools with different focuses, but if you spend all your time looking for a different tool which will help you more you’ll never get anything done.
Here’s a simple rule of thumb: Don’t spend more than 30 minutes looking for a new tool. If you can’t uncover something better than what you’re currently using in 30 minutes stop looking and get back to working. You can always look again later.
Busy Does Not Mean Productive
We tend to trick ourselves into thinking if we’re doing something…doing anything…then we’re busy and we’re productive. In reality being busy is not productive. I often think the more I’m doing the less productive I actually am. Shouldn’t the most productive person be the one who does the least because when they do work they work efficiently and quickly? A productive person will be busy in short bursts rather than live in a continual state of busyness.
If you’re busy look at what is making you busy. Are you busy doing tasks or are you busy looking busy? If you’re busy doing tasks are you working smart? It takes thought to make sure you’re doing the right tasks and working effectively.
Practical application: Break your work time into distinct blocks of time and take breaks. Force yourself to stop and step away and come back. The goal is to get your mind disengaged and then re-engaged when you return. You want to make your time productive and work in short bursts of high efficiency instead of a continually busy frame of mind.
Don’t Chase Rabbits
There’s a number of other reasons why working in shorter time periods is smart. We’ve touched on one already. A second reason is the infamous rabbit trail. For me all it takes is a look up from my computer screen and I find myself hundreds of miles away and thinking about some completely random and totally unrelated topic. If you sit at your desk all day and never take a break you’re encouraging yourself to let your mind wander. Your brain needs breaks. If you don’t plan for breaks in activity then your brain will take its own break whenever it pleases.
There are numerous studies which outline the attention span for humans. And no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise – you need breaks. The key is not to try and fight the mental rabbit trails but to control when and where they occur. Enjoy the daydreaming. Great things can happen when you let your mind wander.
Practical application: Don’t attempt to keep your mind from wandering, instead try to keep your day dreaming to those times you have set aside as breaks. Stay focused on your tasks while you’re in your work block of time. If something drifts across your mind, write it down so you’ll remember it for later. Then get back to work. When your breaks do come, change your scenery (get up), change your posture (move around), and change your mind (chase those rabbits).
The last productivity tip we’ll talk about is doing versus talking. Of course planning is important and you must be thoughtful about what you do. But this does not mean you should spend your entire time discussing your options or reviewing every possible outcome. If you spend all your time analyzing and debating your course of action, you’ll never have a course of action. It’s a balancing act between discussing and doing. (I wrote about these two roles in a separate blog here.)
When you find your time being spent discussing and debating every task and the way each task should be completed; it’s time for a change. (Keep in mind the talking can be just with yourself!) Stop talking and start doing. Even if you find out later there’s a better way you could have done the task. The goal is progress (forward progress).
Practical application: Keep a close eye on the time you spend between discussing the task and doing the task. If you start to elaborate too much or plan for every possible unknown then force yourself to pick a path and start work. Don’t lose time worrying over each and every decision. You can always make changes later.
Here’s the bottom line.
Most of us already know what it takes to be productive. We understand the steps necessary to get things done and we absolutely know the importance of using our time wisely. What we often fail at is implementing and following what we know. Hopefully these productivity tips will help affirm what you already know and encourage you to re-examine your workflow. It’s not the tool or the app which will make you successful and productive. It’s you.
Remember we’re all in this together.
April 25, 2014
Outside the Box
I’m sitting at my desk after pulling another all-nighter working on a last-minute deadline for a project. And before you ask let me tell you, I don’t like it.
I’m not opposed to hard work, in fact, many would say I work a bit too much. And I love working late at night and early (wicked early) in the morning. There’s something relaxing and exciting about being up when the rest of the house is dark and quiet. It’s peaceful…well, it’s peaceful if there’s not a last minute deadline that you’re cramming to finish your work for.
As I was wracking my brain with a problem I couldn’t seem to solve and had spent several hours working on it I realized something. It’s not about working harder, but working smarter. I know, I know it’s a very well-known saying and most of the time I do a great job of getting the right amount of sleep and thinking before writing, but sometimes I don’t realize until it’s too late. So what exactly does it mean to work smarter?
Working smarter means being willing to think outside the box.
When presented with a problem don’t blindly accept a given solution; especially if you find yourself spending hours and hours running in circles without a getting the work done. Thinking outside the box means finding alternative solutions to the problem. If something’s not working and you’ve exhausted your resources, take a minute (doesn’t have to be long), take a deep breath, and take a fresh look at the problem. Look for alternate solutions which you’ve not explored. It may mean a short term expenditure of time, but long-term you could see massive time savings.
Working smarter also means prioritizing tasks.
Don’t get stuck fighting with a minor problem when you could make great strides forward by focusing on a different part of the job. When you pick your tasks correctly you’ll find you personally feel better because you’ll make progress. Yes, it’s a mind game you’re playing with yourself. But it’s ok, the result is positive. I know it helps me to make progress on things in any form. So moving to a different task which I can quickly complete helps keep me motivated and energized.
Working smarter means sharing responsibility.
Don’t do it all yourself. If you’re anything like me then you struggle constantly with the feeling that you should be the one doing the work because you know it best. But trust me, from personal experience I’ve learned a couple of things. First, I don’t know best all the time. Second, you should take advantage of the skills of others and allow them to succeed at those things they know how to do. Many hands make light work and working as team will accomplish much more than you could ever get done by yourself.
So, where does this article come from? It comes from a long night of hard work where I look back and start to wonder if I’ve been working harder or working smarter. I’m pretty sure this time around I’ve worked too hard and not smart enough. I spent some time doing my research today and have found better ways I could have worked. So this is a lecture to myself as much as it is advice for anyone else. I’ll leave you this time with a quote from a somewhat funny old television show quote.
I’m pullin’ for ya. We’re all in this together.
Red, The RedGreen Show