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Productivity Consulting and Leadership Coaching for business and nonprofits - get your most important work done. Collaborating with leaders and their teams to become more strategic, focused and productive. Leadership and Board Coaching, Strategic Planning Facilitation, Productivity Coaching and Consulting, Professional Speaker.
Productivity Coach, Productivity Consultant, Leadership Coach, Executive Coach, Business Consulting, personal productivity, time management, nonprofit, board coach, collaboration, strategic planning, facilitation, change management, leading productive teams, project planning, board development, volunteer engagement, association management, workplace productivity, executive director.
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Last week I shared some tips about maximizing productivity while working from home.  And this week…. well things are different.  I’m having a hard time getting much done.  I thought this would be a perfect time to dig into this book I’m writing… It’s really hard. And there is a reason for that.  (A sneak peak of what I’ll be writing about.)

We start with a quick look at the brain.  In the simplified picture above, we see 3 areas; in evolutionary order – the brain stem, the limbic system, and the prefrontal cortex.

The brain stem is the oldest, most evolved part of the brain. We don’t have control over it.  It basically functions on autopilot.

Next, in evolutionary terms, is the limbic system.  It is our emotional default center. We have some control here, but it takes over when it needs to.

And then we see the evolutionary newer Prefrontal Cortex (PFC); this is where we think, process, and remember.

To get into flow (optimized productivity), we need to be in our thinking brain – the PFC. This is the part of the brain that sets humans apart from other animals. It’s where we do our abstract thinking, and where our executive functions and working memory live.

The limbic system is the emotional center.  This houses our amygdala – the home of the freeze, fight, and flight response.  The amygdala takes over when we are overstressed, in fear, and/or anxious. Because the limbic brain is evolutionarily older than the PFC/thinking brain, it easily overrides it. And when this happens, our concentration, focus and efficiency is compromised.  

To illustrate, let’s look to our caveperson ancestors.  Cave-woman Wilma is working on learning her wall symbols.  Suddenly, a wolf enters the cave and lunges for her baby. It’s Wilma’s limbic/emotional brain that overtakes her PFC/thinking brain and enables her to snatch the baby away from the wolf in the nick of time. The limbic brain wins.  The limbic brain almost always wins. It’s physiological and not within our control, just like our heart beat is not within our control.

Coronastress is supercharging our limbic system. Yes, we can get work done, but getting into flow? We may need some time for that.  This is the time to be kind to yourself.  Having realistic expectations is helpful all around.

Self-compassion expert Dr. Kristin Neff, in her self-compassion Ted Talk, says “When we fail and feel inadequate, we are fighting ourselves. We are the attacker and the attacked.” When we are too hard on ourselves, we flip our brains from the PFC to the amygdala. Now add the uncertainty and stress of Covid-19, and you can see that it’s natural for our productivity to tank.

Taking care of yourself emotionally and physically is important in keeping your immune system strong. If you need support, please reach out.  I’m offering my coaching services (leadership, productivity, business and organizing) via phone and Zoom and am available to help. I invite you to schedule a complimentary consultation with me here.

COVID-19 (Coronavirus) has more people working from home.  Follow these tips to maximize your productivity.

  1. Identify Your Most Important Work Each Day
    1. Organize your tasks by priority – know what has to be done this week, what you want to get done this week, and what MUST be done by the end of the work day. Focus there!
    2. Make a physical list of today’s tasks and keep it in front of you. If it is not in front of you, it won’t be top of mind. (Hint: on your phone or computer isn’t as effective as a written note in front of you.)
    3. Some clients find it helpful to estimate duration and identify task start times of the physical today’s tasks list. That helps fight the “time expanding to the time available” challenge.
  2. Create a Workspace That Supports Your Success – Most of what is written about working from home is how to use your time and how to prepare for work.  I know plenty of effective people who work in their pajamas or exercise clothing all day. For many, what they are wearing doesn’t drive productivity.  The biggest obstacle I’ve observed is not being physically set up for success. Having a work space that supports productivity is crucial:
    1. Have Supplies in Reach:   Have pens, pencils, markers, post-its, letter pads, files, action priority lists in reach.  While your “office” may be your kitchen island, your dining room table, your back porch, or a comfy chair in your family room, you still need to designate a space (a close by drawer or cabinet perhaps) for the things you need to get your work done.
    2. Set Up Your Technology: Do you have a printer handy?  Is it connected to your Wi-Fi and computer?  Do you have a second monitor for detailed projects (this can increase productivity exponentially.)  Do you have a handy place to charge your ear pods, and mouse and other technology?  Is your Bluetooth hooked up?  Many people say “I’ll do that later” and never get to it.  Taking the time (or hiring someone to help you) get your tech set up makes a huge difference.
    3. Find a Quiet Space: Are you able to have a conversation without interruption?  Yes, we know that it’s great to have your kids close by, but sometimes you need to be able to close the door and focus.  If you are working in a “public” space, I recommend having a backup location designated for times you need quiet.
  3. Get Clear to Beat Procrastination – There have been some good articles written lately that procrastination is more of an emotional issue than a discipline or work-habits issue.  I agree and have typically found procrastination to be driven by one of two things:
    1. Lack of Clarity About What’s Most Important – when you’re not clear you end up doing fun or easy stuff instead…
      1. If you work for yourself it’s helpful to create annual goals/objectives/priorities to help you know what to say no to and what to say yes to.  If you aren’t clear about what your priorities are, then it’s going to be really hard to achieve them. (I address this in this blog series)
      2. If you work for a company, I recommend a sit-down with your manager to discuss priorities and what is actually important.  You’d be amazed at how often it’s just assumed that everyone is on the same page…and they aren’t.
    2. Not Knowing How to Do Something or Where to Start – so you just don’t start.
      1. When I dig down into it with my clients, they procrastinate because they aren’t clear about how to do what they want to do. Often, we will come up with a step by step plan, identifying actions, order, and steps for completion.  Once they have that plan, they can move into action.
      2. Sometimes you just need more information.  Once that’s identified then my clients can figure out how to gather that data, and once they have the information, they can proceed.
      3. Sometimes things just need to percolate before moving into action.  Listen to Adam Grant’s Ted Talk on Pre-crastination!
  4. Set Boundaries to Minimize Interruptions
    1. Set boundaries (rules) for those who are home with you about when and how you are to be interrupted. Schedule breaks and share those time with your family/friends/roommates so they don’t feel the need to interrupt as often.
    2. Set work hours and be sure that people in your sphere know you are WORKING from home. Many people think it’s ok to call and chit chat or that you can take an hour walk or lunch break.  If you want to avoid working 24/7 then setting specific work hours is crucial.
  5.  Leverage the Benefits of Working from Home
    1. Quiet, Uninterrupted Time: A lot of my clients really struggle working in open spaces. There are constant interruptions and sometimes headphones don’t screen out the noise.  In some offices it’s not politically correct to wear headphones, or to wear them all the time.  Even a day a week at home, to do project work, can make all the difference.  The brain is not set up to handle multiple inputs.  Practically all people have trouble focusing and getting into flow when they can’t hear themselves think.
    2. Time Efficiency: You can get your work done more quickly working from home and/or accomplish more during your work day. Of course, there is the obvious too – not taking 15-minute breaks at the coffee machine to chit-chat, not going out for an hour lunch (yes, take a lunch break, but you don’t need a hour!), and not being asked to answer the phones or pick up the slack because there is slack to be picked up and you are there to pick it up.

improve efficiency

When I think of improving efficiency  I think of when I was in college and learned about the time and motion studies of the 1950’s.  I envision Lucy and Ethel wrapping chocolate on the production line.  And then I think that no one wants to live life with so much constraint that we are more machine than human.  However, so many of my clients tell me they want to be more efficient.

I am a big fan of putting rote tasks on autopilot so that our energy can be put towards creative process and enjoying life. I am embarrassed to tell you this, (but will because perhaps it might help,) but I’m always looking at how to do things in the fewest steps.

I will exemplify this with a task we all do – emptying the dishwasher. I’ve observed many people empty the dishwasher – I do it differently.  And I typically get it done in the time it takes to brew a couple cups of coffee.

  1. I work from the bottom up so that if water spills out of something it’s not going to get anything below it wet.
  2. I unload in groups –the silverware into my hand and then direct to the silverware drawer
  3. I place things on the counter at the location it will be put into
  4. I unload completely, then I put away. I’m only opening the drawer or cabinet once and I’m putting everything away at one time
  5. And I make it a game to see how fast I can do it. It’s fast and it’s done.

I waste not a moment on something as routine as unloading a dishwasher.

Now let’s apply that to our work.

  • How can I process my email as efficiently as possible?
  • How can I keep my to-do list as streamlined as possible?
  • How can I make my meetings as effective as possible?

I’ve blogged about all of this and I’ve linked the above questions to those posts.  What I’m addressing here however is how to create systems and processes to be most efficient, streamlined, and effective.

Creating efficient systems

  1. Notice it – recognize the opportunity. Don’t assume you can be efficient without thinking about how to be more efficient. Awareness is the first step!
  2. Analyze the steps. Is there a better, faster, more effective way to do something?  Can you eliminate, combine, or change the order of doing something.
  3. Do – Assess– Adjust. Try it out, practice, watch, question. Shift, try something else.  Keep modifying until you get it right.
  4. Practice and Repeat – use the system until it becomes routine and you don’t have to think about it. Watch your stopping and starting. Stick with a task until it’s done, or at least until there is a logical stopping point.

Sometimes having a productivity coach or organizing consultant helps. We work with our clients to help them develop the best ways to improve efficiency.

This week’s topic comes from a client’s inquiry.  She is seeking a better way to balance freelance work, her full-time job, and everything else going on in her life.

The word that comes to mind is RUTHLESS.  She will have to be ruthless in her planning, her priorities, AND her follow through.

A solid plan is paramount:

  • Treat this like you have two different jobs – treat the freelance job like you had a boss and you had to show up. If you’re serious about the other responsibility you can’t not do it just because you don’t feel like it. This holds true for freelance/gig/second jobs, volunteer commitments, family tasks, and other responsibilities.
  • Quantify time allocated to each commitment – If you want to work in your freelance job 20 hours a week and your regular job 40 hours a week, get real about what a 60-hour work week will be like. What do you have to say “no” to to say “yes” to this?
  • Plan it out on your calendar – now let’s bring this to life by clarifying what your week is going to look like. Plug into a calendar grid what you’ll do when. Create a spreadsheet beginning with what time you’ll wake up and what time you’ll go to sleep.  (I call this Ideal Week planning – ideally, if all things go well – my week will look like this…)
  • Pledge to yourself that your 2nd responsibility is as important as your day job – not necessarily in hours, but in commitment. Monitor your actions.  Log your time. If it’s not working ask why not.
    • Are you too tired?
      • Are you working with your body clock?
      • Can you swap office and freelance time?
    • What can change?
      • Are you going to bed at the right time?
      • What other work can you delegate/pass on? – hire someone to clean your house, have your groceries delivered, take your laundry to a wash and fold service.
    • Are you motivated enough?
      • How much do you really want to be doing all you are doing?
  • Assess success weekly – is there a friend or coach you can check in with to discuss how it’s going? Or is it enough for you to be accountable to yourself?
      • Did you reach your goals?
        • If so – what worked?
        • If not – what didn’t work?

At the end of the day there are only so many hours. If you are going to say “YES” to multiple responsibilities, what do you have to say “NO” to?

What is the connection between productivity and leadership?

Perhaps the question is how can these two concepts be pulled apart?

  • A great leader creates the environment for their team to be successful; thus productive.
  • A productive leader gets things done – and that’s not going to happen without strong leadership.

Leaders who produce:

  1. Know what’s important and ensures their team focuses on that work
  2. Have systems in place so team-members know what’s expected
  3. Create space for growth, creativity, and innovation
  4. Develop cultures in which team-member contributions matter
  5. Build connections so that team-members feel they belong

 

Want to learn more? This week I share my appearance on Smead’s Keeping You Organized podcast:

 

The Connection Between Productivity and Leadership  – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ET-rmKOFh1U

 

 

 

Be a More Productive Leader

Thrilled to be quoted in the same article as Bill Gates!

As the boss of MicrosoftBill Gates would take one week, two times a year, and escape by himself to a secret clapboard cabin somewhere in a cedar forest in the Pacific Northwest.

It was what he called his “Think Week.”

Gates would arrive by helicopter or sea plane, and spend the week reading papers written by Microsoft employees pitching new innovations or potential investments. He read as many papers as possible, sometimes doing so 18 hours a day, staying up until the wee hours of the morning, according to The Wall Street Journal.

”…I would literally take boxes out to a beach place and sit there for a week reading them day and night and scribbling on them to putting it entirely online,” Gates said in 2008 video of of Microsoft’s CEO Summit.

Work done during one Think Week eventually led to Microsoft to launching Internet Explorer in 1995. And in 2005, Gates was reading a paper called “Virtual Earth” that described building a virtual map with information on traffic and live images of final destinations.

Gates’ Think Weeks started in the 1980s; the first ones were quiet visits to his grandmother’s house. As they evolved, no visitors were allowed to the cabin during Gates’ Think Week (other than someone who dropped off two meals a day at the cabin, and on year a Wall Street Journal reporter) and Gates’ cabin was stocked with Diet Orange Crush and Diet Coke.

“When I talk about the early days, it’s hard to explain to people how much fun it was. Even with the absurd hours and arguments, we were having the time of our lives.” – Paul Allen

View image on Twitter

Gates’ “week in the woods” idea is smart, says Laura Stack, president and CEO of consulting firm The Productivity Pro. “I would recommend this approach,” Stack tells CNBC Make It. “People should have a ‘third place’ that isn’t work or home, where they can find focused time to think and create and clarify your strategic thinking,” Stack says. “We must create an environment that gives us the ability to focus our minds without interruption from coworkers, spouses, children, pets and technology, or we’ll never be able to concentrate on higher-order activities.”

 

Leadership coach Ellen Faye agrees: “While exercise, yoga, and meditation are great solutions to managing the stress of every day, there’s nothing like disconnecting for a longer period of time to create the space for important decisions and objective creative thought,” she tells CNBC Make It.

“I think of it as a one week long shower. Because we know that in the shower we have these really great thought processes, but those are flashes and moments, and when you go away for a period of time alone you’re able to get more significant results,” she says.

Stack and Faye both employ the technique in their own careers.

“I check myself into my third space — a local hotel up the road — every quarter to write for 48 hours. I’ve published eight books in 14 years using this approach,” Stack says.

Faye says she spends at least four or five days alone at a yoga retreat every year “for deeper creative thought.”

But your “third place” doesn’t have to be far away or fancy. it could be “Starbucks, the library, or the gazebo in your garden. I recommend at least eight hours, but it’s best to take several days to ‘clear the decks,’” Stack says.

As for Gates, his Think Week eventually expanded from just him reading about ideas and providing feedback, to later Microsoft’s top 50 engineering “thinkers” throughout the company doing so.

In the 2008 summit video, Gates said, “We have institutionalized it as kind of a grassroots process and this is a way that somebody who is even just a year or two into the company and has ideas that may or may not relate to the group they are in can write something up.”