There are some realities to consider when examining your own personal effectiveness. Some laws, like gravity, are inarguable. I think the same is true when it comes to personal effectiveness. The people who are most effective are the ones who respect what I think of as laws.
This is not by any means an exhaustive list of these laws, just the ones that have made the biggest difference to me.
1. Focus and attention are a finite resource.
Often people approach me with a request, and they open with “I know you are busy, but—”. A couple of years ago, I realized something. I am not really any busier than anyone else. I may have overcommitted myself, I might have miscalculated how much time something was going to take, but busyness is not the issue. What I really am is focused. And when someone wants something from me, what they are really asking is for me to shift my focus from whatever it is I am doing to whatever it is they want from me. So anytime I am tempted to re-direct my focus, I always ask myself if I have a choice, and what am I choosing to do. Focus should not be any different from any other precious resource, and should be treated the same way.
2. Habits have seasons.
We all develop habits that outlive their usefulness. Each new role or season requires a review of the way you tackle your workflow to identify what can be eliminated, what can be tweaked, and what you might add.
Last year I wasn’t paying attention and I ended up starting every weekday with regular 7 AM meetings. I told myself that I would block my calendar from 9 to 10 AM to walk the dogs and eat. Guess what happened? I ended up being glued to my computer screen for ten hours a day. It was a disaster. I promised myself I would never do it again, and, so far, I haven’t.
3. The reward for good work is more work.
You may hope for acknowledgment, praise, or promotion, which are often in short supply. The actual reward for good work is inevitably more of the same. This can come as a surprise for many people, so if you simply can’t take on more than you are already doing, you must negotiate for more time or defer the task to someone else.
Managers are just trying to get stuff done. They can’t be expected to know how much work is too much for any one of their team members. They will just keep piling it on until you cry uncle. How do I know this? I managed people for over thirty years, and I still have a manager.
Managers can’t read your mind, so, before you lose it, raise the white flag of surrender.
4. Interruptions are the enemy of productivity.
Everyone knows this, and yet most of us continue to allow interruptions in our workday. Managing boundaries and distractions like notifications is critical. Many decades ago I read Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi by Howard Gardner. I picked it up not because I thought I was a creative genius, but because my coaching clients were. One of the many things that struck me about this book was that every single one of these extraordinarily productive people shared the ability to protect their work time. They managed to get others to do all tasks related to daily life—meals, laundry, child care, calling the plumber—to others. In some cases, they paid others, but in many cases they simply surrounded themselves with people who recognized their genius and were committed to supporting their work. My takeaway from that insight was how critical it is for anyone who is trying to accomplish anything worthwhile to, at the very least, commit to the value of their own protected thinking and work time.
One very effective method to get something done is The Pomodoro Technique. Essentially, it calls for setting a timer (the default is 25 minutes, but you can choose the time frame that works for you), turning off all notifications, and focusing on the task for the amount of time allotted. Then you can take a break and check email, Slack, your phone, or whatever other system that hounds your every waking moment to make sure you won’t miss an emergency.
5. Your brain is only capable of so much.
New research suggests that after about six hours of heavy duty cognitive work there is a buildup of glutamate in the lateral pre-frontal cortex that impedes good judgment and decision making. We can dissipate the buildup with exercise, meditation, and/or sleep. Taking breaks to eat, hydrate, exercise, and rest will yield much better results than trying to power through.
6. Do the hard stuff first.
Difficult mental work—analysis, strategic visioning, dealing with conflict—requires tremendous cognitive power. Save the stuff that doesn’t require deep thought, such as answering emails, scheduling, and other administrivia, for the end of the day when your brain is shot.
7. Everything takes longer than you think it will.
This hard lesson is learned by anyone engaging in home renovations, writing a book, or designing a new webinar. I have lost count of the times I have thought Oh, I can do that, it will be easy, and won’t take much time, and been 100% spectacularly wrong. And the crazy thing is that I still do it. Possibly this is only true for optimists, but it seems consistent among all the people I work with. The fix for this is to estimate the amount of time and effort you think something should take and add 30% to it. Add 50% for home renovations, preparing dinner, or getting anywhere with a toddler.
8. Build a reserve.
I learned this one from my mentor Thomas Leonard. In the early 1990s (pre-internet), when we started Coach University, he insisted that anyone working with him go out and buy extra rolls of fax paper. He was sick and tired of people not getting important tweaks to the curriculum because their fax machine ran out of paper. I thought it was absurd until I noticed that my printer ink always seemed to run out when I needed to print something on a tight deadline. Or that the smoke alarm always seems to start beeping at you at 3 AM, when running out to buy nine-volt batteries is not an option.
I am consistently impressed with people who bring their lunch to work or schedule time for lunch, because I still, ridiculously, am constantly surprised that I need to eat lunch. One hallmark of people who are consistently effective is that they subscribe to the motto of the Boy Scouts—be prepared—with a reserve of anything critical to your day going smoothly. Keep gas or sufficient battery power in your car, have backup power sources for your phone and laptop, internet connectivity options, snacks, water, and anything else you know you will need to get the most out of your day.
9. And finally: Make a list.
Get it all out of your head and into a form you can see. Make a list of your goals for the year. Print it out and tape it over your desk or display it as your screen saver.
(Note: Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson recommend this in The One Minute Manager (and The New One Minute Manager). I laughed and thought Who is going to forget their goals? Then one year, I found my goals at the end of the year and realized that I had actually forgotten some of them.)
Now make a list of goals for the quarter, then the month, the week, and the day. What are the things that must get done today, ahead of anything else? The price of extreme focus is often forgetfulness, so make sure you can move from one task to another without missing a beat. The list is your map for the day.
Because lists can feel wildly overwhelming, I made up a different kind of tool for myself that has been extremely useful to clients over the years. Create a mind map of all the stuff that matters to you. It’s a way that you can see your whole landscape and use it to create your lists. This may not be needed for people who are extremely linear thinkers, but for someone like me, whose brain acts more like a pinball machine, it can be a life saver. To make a mind map, first create the big buckets—home, health, family, all the big work responsibility areas—and then start filling in all the smaller tasks associated with each bucket. It can look something like this:
When I can’t sleep because the to-do’s are making entirely too much noise, I make a mind map and it calms everything down. There are numerous mind map software programs for youngsters who aren’t still addicted to paper and pen. And for those kindred spirits, flip chart pads, enormous white boards, or even good old legal pads work beautifully.
We all deserve to honor our own genius by taking full responsibility for it. No one can do it for us.
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