HBR: 3 Ways to Make Time for the Little Tasks You Never Make Time For

How do you handle your low-value work? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Dorie Clark.

3 Ways to Make Time for the Little Tasks You Never Make Time For

We’d all like to spend our time at work on high-value activities: setting strategy, fostering innovation, mentoring promising employees, and more. But every professional faces a relentless deluge of niggling tasks — the overflowing inbox, the introductions you promised to make, the stack of paperwork you have to file, or the articles you really ought to read.

This low-value work is particularly vexing in light of the Pareto Principle, the adage — now gospel in Silicon Valley and many business circles — that 20% of your activities are responsible for 80% of the value you create. If you can jettison what’s least important, the thinking goes, you can double down on what’s driving your most important contributions.

Indeed, sometimes you can let go of these activities. But you have to recognize, and reconcile yourself to the fact, that there is a price. Tim Ferriss, author of the bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek, advocates this approach. After one extended trip abroad during which he avoided email, he wrote that he had missed a large number of critical messages, including a fulfillment center crisis that caused him to lose more than 20% of monthly orders for his business, media interview opportunities that had expired, and more than a dozen partnership offers. Rather than mourning these lost chances, however, he embraced them. “Oftentimes,” he wrote, “in order to do the big things, you have to let the small bad things happen. This is a skill we want to cultivate.”

Perhaps. Though if you work for someone else, rather than being self-employed, the tolerance level for these missed opportunities is a lot lower. If you can’t afford to ignore email or other low-value tasks entirely, and your options for delegating to others are limited, here are three techniques you can use to minimize the pain and get things done.

One possibility is to batch your less important tasks and accomplish them in one fell swoop, creating a sense of momentum. You can do this solo — I used to park myself at a local café and vow not to come home until I’d completed my to-do list for the day — or, in some cases, communally. New York filmmaker Jeremy Redleaf recently launched “Cave Day,” an event in which professionals pay a small fee to spend a Sunday at a coworking facility, plowing through tasks such as cleaning your inbox and writing thank you cards.

Another technique, for those who prefer an incremental approach, is the “small drip strategy.” This involves identifying small blocks of time in your schedule (typically 15–30 minutes per day) and matching them with low-value tasks that need to be accomplished. Yesterday I had to look up how much I had paid my virtual assistant last year in order to get the information to my accountant, so he could issue her tax forms in a timely fashion. That’s no one’s definition of “strategic” or “high value.” It’s a boring, but mandatory, task that would be easy to put off. But when I reviewed my calendar the night before and saw I had a 15-minute window between two calls, I slotted it in and accomplished it. You can look for these scheduling holes serendipitously, or deliberately schedule in a half-hour of grunt work every day, perhaps at the end of the workday, when most professionals’ energy is waning and your ability to do creative thinking has tapered off.

Finally, you could procrastinate strategically. This differs from simply ignoring all incoming email, Tim Ferriss–style. What you do is weigh the value of the opportunity and set your own timeline for handling it. If the timeline happens to work for the other person, it’s a happy coincidence; if it doesn’t, you’ve already reconciled yourself to the possibility of missing out. I’ll often take this approach when it comes to requests from miscellaneous bloggers. I respond quickly to inquiries from official journalists, but if someone is writing a post for their personal blog, I’d like to help them out, but don’t want to sacrifice an important task (such as finishing book edits) to do so. I always write back eventually, but it may take me a number of days, or even weeks. If they can still use my quote, fantastic; if they can’t, it’s only a minor loss.

 

No matter how productive we become, we’re never going to permanently rid ourselves of low-value work. By following these strategies, we can at least handle it more efficiently and leave more white space in our days for the projects that are truly meaningful.

HBR: Is Your Calendar Managing You?

How do you get more control over your time? Are you spending time on low-value activities? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Ron Ashkenas:

Is Your Calendar Managing You?

Not long ago, I was talking with a senior executive who was frustrated that some of her high priority initiatives were not moving fast enough. After exploring various reasons for the slow uptake, I asked her to look at her calendar and calculate the amount of time she personally spent on these initiatives. The answer shocked her: a grand total of two hours over the course of two months, and this was being generous.

In my years of consulting, I’ve found that this disconnect between stated priorities and the actual allocation of managerial time is extremely common, and often happens without the manager even realizing it. The only exception is during a crisis or in the face of an impending deadline — when somehow the use of time magically shifts to match the short-term priority. But in the absence of crisis, managers’ schedules fill up with all sorts of lower-value activities that water down the focus on high-priority projects, change efforts, or opportunities.

In fairness to managers, they probably shouldn’t be spending as much personal time on high-priority initiatives as their subordinates, to whom they may have delegated all or part of the responsibilities. But delegating is not an excuse for disappearing. If a manager like the one mentioned above wants to see progress, she needs to visibly demonstrate support for the initiative, run interference with other related groups in the company, coach the designated leaders, create a sense of urgency, and make decisions. These, and many other activities, take time. And although most managers know that they should make this commitment, they still don’t.

I’ve written previously about some of the psychological dynamics of why managers spend their time on low-value activities. Through the years I’ve found that there is a very tactical, but unconscious, trap that many managers fall into: They let their calendars manage them.

If you are a manager, think about how your daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedule is constructed. First there are corporate or divisional meetings — essentially command performances — in addition to the standing and ad-hoc meetings called by your boss. Many of these are dictated by the rhythms of corporate processes such as strategic planning, budgeting, and performance management — and include countless other preparatory meetings. Of course if you are an operational manager or running a team, you also have to schedule your own meetings: staff meetings, one-on-ones, town meetings, visits to key locations, and more. Somewhere in this mix are interactions with customers, either external or internal, depending on your job. You may also be invited to staff meetings and various project review meetings which may or may not be about your own priorities. If this is not enough, many managers also attend industry conferences and briefings, leadership workshops, or other developmental events. On top of all this is the time required to actually accomplish your day-to-day job — reviewing reports, reading spreadsheets, preparing and modifying presentations, and the like. Finally — if you’re really well-organized — you might devote a little time to “thinking and planning” (although not much in the formal sense), your family, and other non-work pursuits.

Collectively, the demands we face at work are daunting and require constant juggling and trade-offs. For senior people much of this juggling is done by an executive assistant and/or chief of staff, while middle or junior managers do it themselves, often with the assistance of electronic scheduling that automatically puts meetings on the calendar. Unfortunately, neither method substitutes for thoughtful prioritization by the manager herself. Without such prioritization, the outcome is often a schedule that bounces managers from meeting to meeting, trip to trip, and requirement to requirement — without a sense of how to add the most value.

If you are concerned that your calendar is managing you, here’s how to start taking back control.

First, do a calendar analysis. Examine the events and activities described above that apply to you, and find out how much time you are really spending on the areas where your presence will make a difference. If that’s not enough, conduct a zero-based reconstruction of your calendar to reflect a better balance of value-adding time. To do this, start by designating specific times that you will devote to your highest priorities, even if you’re not sure how you will use those times. If you find later that you won’t need all of those slots, you can change them. But if you don’t save them now, you’ll lose that choice.

Next, build your calendar from the ground up. Add in the mandatory meetings that you have to attend that also add value, such as decision-making meetings or customer visits.

Finally, go through the calendar and create a list of recurring meetings and other activities that seem to create less (or no) value. For each of these, ask yourself:

 

  • Is the activity or meeting needed at all?

 

  • If needed, do I need to attend or can I designate someone else?

 

  • Can this be done less frequently?

 

  • Can it be done in a different way that will require less time?

 

These tough questions may be worth addressing with your boss, your team, or with a coach. But if you don’t address them, and continually try to zero-base your schedule, it will end up managing you (instead of the other way around).

How do you get more control over your time?

 

SMART Goals

The practice of goal-setting is helpful in the pursuit of happiness. Psychologists tell us that people who make consistent progress toward meaningful goals live happier, more satisfied lives.

If you don’t have written goals, I encourage you to make an appointment on your calendar to work on them. You can get a rough draft done in as little as an hour or two. Few things in life pay such rich dividends for such a modest investment.

A SMART goal is an acronym for achieving your commitments. Below are the five meanings:

  • Specific—Your goals must identify exactly what you want to accomplish in as much specificity as you can muster.
  • Measurable—If possible, try to quantify the result. You want to know absolutely, positively whether or not you hit the goal.
  • Actionable—Every goal should start with an action verb (accomplish, organize, increase, develop, budget, etc.) rather than a to-be verb (am, be, have, etc.)
  • Realistic—A good goal should stretch you, but you have to add a dose of common sense. Go right up to the edge of your comfort zone and then step over it.
  • Time-bound—Every goal needs a date associated with Make sure that every goal ends with a “by when” date.[1]

Your next steps are as follows:

  1. Write them down. This is critical. There is huge power in writing down your goals.
  2. Review them frequently. Writing your goals down makes them real but the key is to review them on a regular basis and break them down into actionable tasks.
  3. Share them selectively. Sharing them with those that are important to you and someone to whom you can be accountable.

[1] Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy, Living forward : a proven plan to stop drifting and get the life you want (Baker Books, 2016), 95

HBR: How Your Morning Mood Affects Your Whole Workday

How can you help your employees cope with stress and boost performance?  Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Nancy Rothbard.

How Your Morning Mood Affects Your Whole Workday

Have you ever thought about what happens to your employees right before they get to work? Sometimes we all wake up on the wrong side of the bed and just find it hard to get our bearings. At other times, we might start out fine, but have a horrible commute or a screaming match with a teenager just before going to work. Paying attention to the morning moods of your employees can pay dividends. In my research with Steffanie Wilk, an associate professor at the Fisher College of Business at the Ohio State University, we found that this start-of-the-day mood can last longer than you might think—and have an important effect on job performance.

In our study, “Waking Up On The Right Or Wrong Side Of The Bed: Start-Of-Workday Mood, Work Events, Employee Affect, And Performance,” we examined customer service representatives (CSRs) in an insurance company’s call center over several weeks. We sent CSRs periodic short surveys throughout the day. We studied their mood as they started the day, how they viewed work events such as customer interactions throughout the day, and their mood during the day after these customer interactions. We used the company’s detailed performance metrics to investigate how their mood at work related to their performance.

We found that CSRs varied from day to day in their start-of-day mood, but that those who started out each day happy or calm usually stayed that way throughout the day, and interacting with customers tended to further enhance their mood. By contrast, for the most part, people who started the day in a terrible mood didn’t really climb out of it, and felt even worse by the end of the day — even after interacting with positive customers.

One interesting (and counterintuitive) finding was something we called “misery loves company.” Some CSRs who felt badly as they started the day actually felt less badly after interacting with customers who were themselves in a bad mood. Perhaps this was because, by taking their customers’ perspectives, these CSRs realized their own lives were not so terrible.

Most importantly, we discovered strong performance effects when it came to quality of work and productivity. Employees who were in a positive mood provided higher-quality service: they were more articulate on the phone with fewer “ums” and verbal tics, and used more proper grammar. Employees who were in a negative mood tended to take more frequent breaks from their duties to cope with the stress and get themselves through the day. These small breaks piled up, leading to a greater than 10% loss of productivity.

How can managers use these findings to help employees cope with stress and boost performance? While it can be difficult, it is not impossible to hit the reset button and try to help employees shake a negative morning mood. For example, managers might send out morale-boosting messages in the morning, or hold a regular team huddle to help people transition and experience positive mood as they start their workday. Feeding people and celebrating accomplishments is always a morale booster as well. Alternatively, managers can allow employees a little space first thing in the morning, for example to chat with colleagues before an early meeting. People also need time to “recover” from the night before so managers may want to think twice before launching a late-night barrage of emails as this might set employees up for a bad start to the next day. And if an employee arrives a few minutes late, confronting him or her about it later on instead of immediately may yield a more productive conversation and a more productive workday.

Employees, for their part, may want to take steps to lose their own negativity before arriving at work, creating their own “intentional transition”. This might involve taking a different route to work, giving themselves a pep talk, stopping for coffee, or listening to inspiring music. Finally, the best thing they can do is take a deep breath before walking in the door, to focus on making the most of the new day.

 

HBR: A Portrait of the Overperforming Salesperson

Is your Salesperson overperforming? There are six key attributes to influence their success. Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Steve W. Martin.

A Portrait of the Overperforming Salesperson

What are the personal attributes, attitudes, and actions that influence personal sales productivity? I recently conducted an extensive study of more than 1,000 salespeople and sales management leaders to determine the attributes of top sales professionals–those who achieved more than 125% of their assigned quota last year. This is a very select group as only 15% of the study participants met the criterion.

About one-third were field salespeople, one-third were inside salespeople, and the remainder were mid-level sales managers and top-level vice presidents of sales. They’ve been in sales an average of 16 years and have achieved the annual quota that was assigned to them 88% of the time over the course of their careers. This is 22% higher than the average of study participants who achieved less than 75% of their quota last year. Moreover, the study results help us understand the attributes in six key areas that influence their success.

Focus. It’s not surprising to find that top sales professionals are motivated by money. Sixty-six percent agreed with the statement “Money is extremely important to me and how I measure my personal success,” while only 10% disagreed. But they are also motivated by status and recognition. A staggering 84% of top sales professionals indicated that being respected and recognized as one of the best by peers at their company is very important to them.

When asked to select how they describe their personal focus, 42% believe they are a likable person who makes customers feel comfortable, and 32% consider themselves very dependable and good at prioritizing their time. Twenty-six percent believe that their knowledge is their most powerful attribute, and this group had the highest average quota attainment last year at 170%.

Career orientation. Top sales professionals think about work a lot. In fact, they find themselves thinking about their job over half of their free time on weeknights and weekends. In addition, they’re goal and outcome focused. Fifty percent said they were the type of person who keeps a written or mental list of goals they want to accomplish and 36% indicated they’re frequently thinking about what the future will be like in five, ten, or more years. Only 13% described themselves as the type of person who lives life one day at a time.

Their responses to the fundamental reason as to why they went into sales were fairly evenly split. Twenty-seven percent wanted to control their own destiny, and 27% indicated the harder they worked, the more money they could make. Twenty-six percent said sales suited their personality, and for 19%, a career in sales just happened naturally.

Personal attributes. Do childhood experiences influence sales success? The results indicate they do as 72% of top sales professionals remember their childhood fondly as a generally happy time while only 9% disagreed with that statement. When asked which school subject was their favorite, 29% selected history, 23% selected science, 23% selected math, 13% selected physical education, 9% selected language or composition, and only 3% selected art.

When asked how they make important decisions that impact their lives, 40% said their decisions are based on more logic than instinct, 30% use equal parts logic and instinct, and 30% use more instinct than logic. The average annual quota attainment for those who use more logic than instinct and those who use more instinct than logic was exactly the same, while quota attainment for those who use equal parts logic and instinct was 7% higher.

Seventy-two percent of top sales professionals prefer a wide variety of activities as opposed to daily routines. Only 8% prefer a daily routine, while 20% had no preference.

Customer interaction strategy. The top sales professionals ranked five different sales strategies based on their effectiveness. The top-ranked strategies were “Getting customers to emotionally connect with you” followed by “Tailoring your sales pitch to the customer’s needs” and then “Asking questions that show your expertise.” The two lowest ranked strategies were “Showing the value of your solution” and “Driving the topics of conversation.”

When surveyed about which customer interaction statement they agreed with most, 49% indicated that likability was an important differentiator between themselves and their competitors. Conversely, 45% agreed with the statement “Sometimes you have to point out that what customers are doing is wrong and proverbially tell them their baby is ugly.” In other words, sometimes you have to be provocative and confront the customer’s belief system. Only 6% concurred with the statement that challenging the customer’s point of view will make the customer feel too uncomfortable.

What type of relationship do they have with customers after the sale? Thirty-six percent responded they feel personally responsible and dedicate themselves to ensuring the client’s success, while 26% have less-personal but cordial relationships with their clients because they are both very busy. Twenty-two percent keep a general pulse on what’s happening with the customer after the sale. Contrary to what many people think of as a requirement for sales success, only 17% develop very close personal friendships with their clients.

Attitude. The study participants were also asked to complete word associations to allow a better understanding of their workplace attitudes. The written answers were then categorized as having a positive connotation, a negative connotation, or a neutral connotation, which was neither bad nor good. For example, 53% of the associations to the term “sales manager” were positive, and the top three answers were “coach,” “leader,” and “mentor.” Twenty-seven percent of the answers were negative, and the two most frequently mentioned were “pain” and “overhead.” Twenty-eight percent were neutral, and the most frequently cited words were “management” and “forecast.”

Forty-two percent of the answers for “sales process” were positive associations, with the most frequently mentioned term being “important.” Thirty-seven percent were neutral words, and the top answer was “methodology,” while 21% were negative, with the top-mentioned word being “long.”

Self-perception. When they selected from a list of qualities they thought prospective customers admired most about them, the top responses were trustworthiness, professionalism, follow-through, product knowledge, and enthusiasm. However, the definition of trustworthiness seems to be individually determined. For example, 7% agreed with the statement “If the customer’s best interest is served by slightly obscuring the facts that’s OK.” Twenty-one percent agreed with “Subtle manipulation is reasonable, so long as the truth is served.” Thirty-four percent agreed with “You don’t have to point out every blemish of your product” and 36% with “Nothing but the whole truth is acceptable.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of the study is the verbal perception of top sales professionals and how they described themselves when compared with those who achieved less than 75% of their quota. When presented with the same list of twenty choices, the most frequently selected answers for those under 75% of their quota were responsible, likable, confident, empathetic, smart, and humble. The answers for top sales professionals over 125% of their quota were confident, X-factor (a combination of all the traits listed), quick-witted, likable, responsible, and productive. Clearly, this shows that top sales professionals have a different level of self-confidence, personal certainty, and pride.

 

To-Do List

To-Do List

A to-do list is used to track real work that needs to be completed. Either a handwritten or digital list can be used. It’s best to take about 15 minutes at the end of each day to do a GTD “Mind Sweep”. Review all your emails and meeting notes for all your task/projects you are responsible for. Writing down all your tasks/projects on paper or digital list means you don’t have to try and remember them. It gets the task out of your head which helps reduce stress.

Paper and PenTo-Do List

A handwritten list is the simplest way to keep a to-do list. To get started, you will need paper – preferably a notebook – and a pen. I suggest the following format for setting up your page: day of the week in the upper right hand of the page, under the weekday put the month/day. List all of your tasks putting related subtasks under the task it belongs to.  Once the list is completed determine your priorities using a number system. Finally, write down the estimated time for completion next to each task listed. See Photo.

Digital

There are many options available for those who would prefer a digital to-do list. You could simply use your digital calendar to schedule tasks for each day of the week. However, there are many task management apps available some examples include: Remember the Milk, Wunderlist, Todoist. These can be used for planning by setting up due dates and reminders. Other great options are Evernote and OneNote for creating lists.

There are many benefits of starting a to-do list and journaling them. The ability to cross off items as completed can give you a sense of accomplishment. Keeping track/journal of your to-do list will help you to review your accomplishments. Additionally, journaling can be helpful in tracking actual time taken to complete a task. Try experimenting between paper/pen and digital to help decide which works best for you. I have been experimenting for years between paper/pen and digital. This year I’m interested in Bullet journaling; ask me about it.

 

Reference:

Remember the Milk

Wunderlist

ToDoist

Evernote

MS OneNote

Bullet Journal

How I Use Todoist And Evernote Together

Getting Things Done (GTD)

Work like Teddy Roosevelt

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport is a must read and one for your bookshelf. It helped me understand the difference between deep and shallow work. Below is an excerpt from the book:

Work like Teddy Roosevelt Deep work.jpg

 

If you attended Harvard College during the 1876-1877 school year, you would’ve likely noticed a wiry, mutton- chopped, brash, and impossibly energetic freshman named Theodore Roosevelt. If you then proceeded to befriend this young man, you would’ve soon noticed a paradox.

On the one hand, his attention might appear to be hopelessly scattered, spread over what one classmate called an “amazing array of interests”– a list that biographer Edmund Morris catalogs to contain boxing, wrestling, body building, dance lessons, poetry readings, and the continuation of a lifelong obsession with naturalism (Roosevelt’s landlord on Winthrop Street was not pleased with her young tenant’s tendency to dissect and stuff specimens in his rented room). This latter interest developed to the point that Roosevelt published his first book, The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks, in the summer after his freshman year. It was well received in the Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club- a publication, needless to say, which takes bird books quite seriously-and was good enough to lead Morris to assess Roosevelt, at this young age, to be “one of the most knowledgeable young naturalists in the United States.”

To support this extracurricular exuberance Roosevelt had to severely restrict the time left available for what should have been his primary focus: his studies at Harvard. Morris used Roosevelt’s diary and letters from this period to estimate that the future president was spending no more than a quarter of the typical day studying. One might expect therefore that Roosevelt’s grades would crater. But they didn’t. He wasn’t the top student in his class, but he certainly didn’t struggle either: In his freshman year he earned honor grades in five out of his seven courses. The explanation for this Roosevelt paradox turns out to be his unique approach to tackling this schoolwork. Roosevelt would begin his scheduling by considering the eight hours from eight thirty a.m. to four thirty p.m. He would then remove the time spent in recitation and classes, his athletic training (which was once a day), and lunch. The fragments that remained were then considered time dedicated exclusively to studying. As noted, these fragments didn’t usually add up to a large number of total hours, but he would get the most out of them by working only on schoolwork during these periods, and doing so with a blistering intensity. “The amount of time he spent at his desk was comparatively small,” explained Morris, “but his concentration was so intense, and his reading so rapid, that he could afford more time off [from schoolwork] than most.”

This strategy asks you to inject the occasional dash of Rooseveltian intensity into your own workday. In particular, identify a deep task (that is, something that requires deep work to complete) that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. If possible, commit publicly to the deadline-for example, by telling the person expecting the finished project when they should expect it. If this isn’t possible (or if it puts your job in jeopardy), then motivate yourself by setting a countdown timer on your phone and propping it up where you can’t avoid seeing it as you work.

At this point, there should be only one possible way to get the deep task done in time: working with great intensity- no e-mail breaks, no daydreaming, no Facebook browsing, no repeated trips to the coffee machine. Like Roosevelt at Harvard, attack the task with every free neuron until it gives way under your unwavering barrage of concentration.

Try this experiment no more than once a week at first- giving your brain practice with intensity, but also giving it (and your stress levels) time to rest in between. Once you feel confident in your ability to trade concentration for completion time, increase the frequency of these Roosevelt dashes. Remember, however, to always keep your self-imposed deadlines right at the edge of feasibility. You should be able to consistently beat the buzzer (or at least be close), but to do so should require teeth-gritting concentration.

The main motivation for this strategy is straightforward. Deep work requires levels of concentration well beyond where most knowledge workers are comfortable. Roosevelt dashes leverage artificial deadlines to help you systematically increase the level you can regularly achieve-providing, in some sense, interval training for the attention centers of your brain. An additional benefit is that these dashes are incompatible with distraction {there’s no way you can give in to distraction and still make your deadlines). Therefore, every completed dash provides a session in which you’re potentially bored, and really want to seek more novel stimuli — but you resist. As argued in the previous strategy, the more you practice resisting such urges, the easier such resistance becomes.

After a few months of deploying this strategy, your understanding of what it means to focus will likely be transformed as you reach levels of intensity stronger than anything you’ve experienced before. And if you’re anything like a young Roosevelt, you can then repurpose the extra free time it generates toward the finer pleasures in life, like trying to impress the always-discerning members of the Nuttall Ornithological Club.