8 productivity traps to avoid

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What is productivity, really? It’s not just clearing off your desk or ploughing through your email inbox. Stop, take a breath and make sure you’re getting the important stuff done.

Obviously, productivity involves producing. Producing widgets, events, reports, sales. The more producing you do, the more money you have and the greater success your company has. Right?

It’s not that simple. It doesn’t matter how many widgets you produce if no one buys them. It doesn’t matter how many reports you produce if they’re irrelevant. So, productivity must be tied to a worthwhile goal.

This is a simple concept, but one that is easy to forget in the hustle and bustle of the day. It’s easy to be fooled into thinking you’re productive when you answer emails and phone calls and get paper off your desk.

They clamor for your attention. The trick is to handle them or keep them at bay while you spend time on the things that actually are important, that are quietly waiting for you to get to them.

So, here are the eight productivity traps you need to avoid:

  • The “I can do it all” Trap.
    Newsflash: you can’t do it all, and you’ll never be able to do enough. There will always be more you could have done. This is the perfectionism trap.

    Solution: decide when enough is enough. What is the ROI on your time for a particular project?

    If you’re talking about getting a contract that will be half your profits for the year, spend a lot of time on it. If you’re talking about figuring out how to save $40 a month on supplies, spend an hour or less on that.

  • Picking a system and then not using it consistently.
    Stick with certain ways of doing things. Keep your to do list in the same spot and create items for it with similar language all the time.

    This allows your mind to concentrate on the content rather than being distracted by the form. Let the form be the holder for the content; something to bring it to you efficiently and invisibly.

    Each form has its own good qualities, so you just need to pick one. What if phone book entries were all written differently? Some with the first name first, some the last name, some the address first, some the phone number first? Can you see how much harder it would be to look through a book like that and find what you need?

  • The “But we’ve always done it that way” Trap.
    Take time to look at what you’ve been taking for granted and see if its efficiency or productivity can be improved. This can be anything from regular meetings to how your desk is set up to how you get to work in the morning.

    Anytime you hear yourself saying “we always (fill in the blank),” question that statement. Do you “always” for a good reason? A good reason two years ago may not be applicable anymore. Is it necessary?

    Could it be done faster or piggybacked onto another task? Sometimes just thinking carefully of the steps involved in a particular project can spur a brainstorm to improve it.

  • The “I don’t know what to do next” Trap.
    Be your own boss, and your own employee. When you’re the boss, you formulate and set goals and figure out ways to get there. When you’re the employee, you get down to work on those tasks.

    By separating these functions, you don’t second guess yourself as much. Your boss has already decided, for example, that a new brochure needs to be created and it should have certain elements and be ready in 3 weeks. As the employee, you start writing the new copy; you don’t waste time worrying about whether the old copy really needs changing, or if 3 weeks is a realistic deadline.

    If new information comes up while the project is in progress, the plan may change. But, again, trust that the decisions you make as the “boss” are the best you can make with the information available, and then let your “employee” act on them.

  • The “I just can’t focus on what I have to do” Trap.
    Most of us thrive on novelty. We crave variety. The latest thing almost always can get our attention.

    So you need to figure out some tricks to make your existing project seem new again. Tackle it from a different angle. Ask a colleague for advice and see it from his or her point of view.

    Break it down into components and then work a little on each one so you don’t get burned out on any one element. Pack up your materials and do some work elsewhere; a conference room, your kitchen, a café.

  • The “I need more information first” Trap.
    This is a variation of #1. You must control your options. People generally confuse having lots of options and choices with getting the best possible result. Fewer choices might mean that the best one was left out.

    But, lots of choice can induce paralysis. There’s an infinite number of questions to ask and conditions to satisfy to determine which choice is the best. And as long as you’re stuck on that task, you aren’t getting to the doing of the project.

    Have some simple criteria to judge options, gather them quickly and move forward. What really matters is getting the house built, not making sure you had the world’s best hammer to do it with.

  • The “Everything seems equally important” Trap.
    There’s no way you’ll get everything done. If you ever did, you can be sure more things would crowd in the door behind them.

    You must set up criteria for what the important things to do are. In addition, identify things that don’t meet that criteria and consciously decide not to do them. Be clear about what you’re not

    Why? Because if you don’t, those items will remain on a phantom to do list, forever undone and forever bugging you. Even though you’re not doing them, they suck energy away from the important things.

  • The “Everything seems equally important” Trap, part 2.
    If you can’t get everything done, and you don’t set your own criteria for what’s important, that means that someone else is setting it. Your boss, your mother, whoever.

    Think of this not as having to give things up, but regaining power over how you spend your time.

The payoff is having clarity about what you are doing, which makes you more productive and efficient. The way to avoid these traps can be as simple as maintaining a regularly reviewed to do list and remember to ask yourself, “why am I doing this?”

 

Racing Against Time

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Newspaper "Try as you will, you get behind in the race, in spite of yourself. It's an incessant strain to keep pace… And still you lose ground. Science empties its discoveries on you so fast that you stagger beneath them in hopeless bewilderment… Everything is high pressure. Human nature can't endure much more."

A quotation from last week's newspaper? No. This ran in the Atlantic Journal on June 16, 1833.

The moral of the story is that the speed of life constantly accelerates. Always has. There were no "good old days." Whatever systems and coping mechanisms you have in place now may not work in five years, or even next year.

Expect change. Embrace it. You can't predict what the change will be, but you can certainly predict that change will occur. Keep your systems simple and flexible. Check in to make sure they're still sufficient and don't be afraid to revamp them. That's how you stay ahead in the race.

Antique newspaper from pareerica's photostream.

Time Management is You Management

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Here are some helpful hints from Jan Hayner for managing your time, courtesy of the Clutter Control Freak Blog (sponsored by Stacks and Stacks, which has some fab organizing products).
Time mgmt pie

These hints are especially helpful for those of you who have a hard time saying no. This means scheduling things during lunch so that you have no break time (not to mention no lunch) and otherwise feeling compelled to fill up your entire schedule with requests from others.

Remind yourself that others need not be in charge of your schedule. Even if it seems that they do, it never hurts to ask, “Can we meet at 10 instead of 3 pm? That would work better for me.” Or “I’ve got 45 minutes Tuesday afternoon. If that’s not enough time, can we schedule it for later in the week?” Controlling your time doesn’t mean being self-centered and rigid.

Are you Doing Important Stuff, or Just Urgent Stuff?

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Urgent sounds important, but it’s really not. It may be important to someone else, but your involvement is often just a waste of time. Tasks that are urgent require you to act quickly and that means you don’t spend time thinking about whether you should do them. They’re also often the result of poor planning (or no planning) and bad time management.

Slide1 The words urgent and important are borrowed from Stephen Covey’s four-quadrant division of work. As you might guess, people often find themselves stuck doing mostly Quadrant 1 and 3 tasks, just because they have a deadline and someone else is waiting for them.

You can’t completely avoid these, but at least make sure you minimize Quadrant 3 tasks, which are things like pointless meetings, requests for information, most email, many phone calls.

As for Quadrant 4, obvy, stay away from time wasters. A certain amount of brain shut-down time can help you be more productive; just don’t get carried away.

The most important area to spend time in is Quadrant 2. Why is this so hard? One reason is that sometimes these projects are only important to you. That means no one is waiting for it; there’s no outside accountability.

To make progress on important projects, you need to value them enough to carve out time in your schedule to work on them. You are not going to find spare time to devote to them.

Look for time in your week that’s not quite as busy as the rest of the week and block it out for personal project work. That means actually write or type it into your datebook at a specific time on a specific day.

Ultimately, these are the projects that will bring you the most satisfaction and pride of accomplishment. Not all the fire drills and all-nighters that seemed important at the time. Start today on honoring the commitments you make to yourself.

Fighting a Hidden Distraction at Work

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Assembly line Many a blog post has been written about turning off your phone and closing your email program and browser so you can get some work done. Tips about deflecting office visitors and avoiding meetings can combat those in-person distractions. But there's another subtle way that you get off track, and that's by doing other people's work.

The thing is, it's usually easier to solve someone else's problems than your own. When you give advice to a friend, you have no difficulty thinking up ideas to get her out of her predicament. And we all appreciate the more objective point of view of our friends in addressing our own challenges. 

If you do this at work, though, you're usually short changing your own projects. Every time you get sucked into an office crisis or even just volunteer to look up information to respond to a casual request, you're doing a task that someone else should be doing.

I'm not saying you should become a hermit and never offer to help. Just be mindful about whether you are also honoring your own commitments. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Schedule work appointments with yourself and keep them. Putting them on a shared calendar is helpful to let others know you're busy
  • Create an email auto-responder that you can easily activate for the times that you need to be distraction-free. Let correspondents know when you'll be back on line
  • Have office hours. Put a sign on your door that says you're open from 1-4 pm
  • Don't respond to casual requests that are sent to a group. Let someone else respond
  • If necessary, set an hourly timer so you can check in with yourself and make sure you're on track
Cream puff assembly line from misocrazy's photostream

Managing Time in Your Home Office

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Here’s an interview that one of my coaches, Ann Ronan, did with me about the special problems people who work at home face.

I talk about:

  • How to avoid working all the time (!)
  • How to control distractions like friends calling because you’re not “at work”
  • Why your home office isn’t working for you
  • How to be your own boss

You can listen right here, or download it for later.

[cincopa AILAa-KNrvId]

What I Learned at Burning Man about Time

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Hammock I was at Burning Man for about three months. Okay, not really, but it felt that way. I'd talk with my camp mates about something that had happened a few days before and we'd joke that it was six weeks ago.

And it was a good thing! How did it happen? Because I was in the present. Pretty much the whole time.

I did get pretty overstimulated initially by the weather, the constant music, all the new people and not being able to sleep enough. At that point, I really wanted time to speed up, for it to be over.

But I adjusted, with the help of some fantastic camp mates. And then I got into the flow. Time went away. There was day and night still, but nothing had to happen at a particular time. Only a few things had to happen at all: eating, drinking water, putting on sunblock, sleeping (not optional for me ;)).

Everything else was extra, a wonderful bonus. Time never ran out. It didn't feel slow, it just was always plentiful. Conversations flowed. Great ideas for excursions bubbled up. Everywhere we went was just the right place, until we went somewhere else. It was a magical feeling.

Wouldn't it be great to feel that way now, at home (in the "default world")? Here are some ways you can:

  • Keep your to do list short and do-able. Yes, you have too much to do, but putting it all on today's list isn't going to get it done. It will just make you crazy.
  • Do things well enough. Forget about making hospital corners on your bed in the morning when just pulling up the duvet will suffice. Overdoing it is usually not about making it better anyway. It's about being afraid of doing it wrong. Well enough is not wrong.
  • Let things be. Most of the time, you don't have any control over how things play out. You've done your part well (see above). Now stop.

Welcome to the present. Pull up a chair and stay awhile.

Hammock swinging from Meagan's photostream.

Tricks to Motivate You

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Magician I answered a question on Linked In today about whether it’s possible to become more disciplined. My answer wasn’t really about discipline though, because that word turns me off. It makes me think of following rules, being punished if I don’t, rigidity and fear. Ick.

So my answer was about motivation instead. And tricks. Fun ways to get yourself to do stuff.

 

If the end result of your work is something you really, really want, it’s not hard to get motivated. If you don’t want the result, why bother? Whatever project you’re putting off, trace it back and find out what the original motivation was and whether it’s still valid.

 

If it’s valid and you still don’t want to do it, pay someone else to do it! Or, try some of these tricks.
  • Work on your project for just two minutes. Use a timer. If you get inspired, keep going. If not, you got two minutes worth done, more than you had before.
  • Imagine the day is over and you’re looking back over what you got done. What will make you feel like you got something really worthwhile accomplished? Then, do that thing.
  • Make a “Not To Do” list. Put anything that you’re not getting around to and that can go undone without the planet exploding. Keep the list somewhere safe. This tells your brain that it can forget about those things and relieves you of that mental clutter.

What tricks do you use to get yourself going and stay on task?

 

Rabbit out of a Hat from laneesque’s photostream.

Brain Dump: Your Turn

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Woo hoo! I’ve already got a couple of overfilled brains interested in my free consultation! There’s room for more; I’ll be doing this all month long (maybe longer if we’re still having fun!).

What is it?
I made an offer at the end of my previous post, about a client’s brain dump. You can use it for your own brain dump. Other juicy topics are:

  • not being able to work at your desk because there’s too much stuff on it
  • going in a million directions without much to show for it except being tired
  • confusion about and/or resistance to standard organizing techniques
  • running out of time for the important stuff
  • getting rid of what’s distracting you from the important stuff

These are just some ways to use the session. What they have in common is setting things up so you can do your best work with ease and fun. You’ll get made-to-order solutions and suggestions on how to make the solutions stick. You’ll also get a new perspective of your habits and behavior that will let you create your own wild schemes for getting things done.

The Customer Love tribe is full of amazing people who have fantastic ideas that need to burst into reality. My little part of helping with that is making sure you use your time and set up your space to support that fabulous work.

The Details

UPDATE, July 12, 2011:
My beta test of this service went fabulously well. My “guinea pigs” walked away feeling clearer and lighter and more focused, and gave me some great reviews. The result is, I now have a Mind Decluttering service.

Get a taste of it with a free, 20 minute, mini brain dump. You can sign up using the link at the bottom.

I’ve decided to make the sessions an hour long so we can get into the specifics. I’m also going to offer a 20 minute follow-up session for troubleshooting and cheering you on.

What I ask from you: willingness to put the ideas into practice. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not magic either. Some persistence and elbow grease will be required. I also ask that if I do help you, you spread the word far and wide so I can help more people. Agreed?

Here’s the link to schedule your session (just do the first one for now): I’m in!

Laughing woman by Έλενα Λαγαρία