energy1If you know you’re always sleepy after lunch, why try to do work that requires intense concentration at that time? It’ll take you 1 hour to produce what would take 10 minutes at another time. There’s an optimal time of day to work on different types of tasks, and it’s a different time for each of us. This post will teach you how to recognise that time and schedule your work for optimal productivity, even during the periods of low energy!

How do your energy levels fluctuate throughout the day?

It’s time for some field research. Grab a note pad and list the hours of the day down the side of the page. At the start of each hour write a number between 1 and 10 to represent your energy level (1 = almost falling asleep at your desk, 10 = bouncing around on your toes with excitement to start work).

If you keep forgetting to record your energy level, keep setting a timer on your phone for an hour and when it buzzes, record your energy level in your phone’s notes app.

Do this for 2-3 days or whatever is enough for you to recognise your patterns.

For example I find my highest energy levels are in the morning, suddenly dropping after lunch to between 0 and 1 between 2pm and 4pm where I almost can’t get anything done. Then my energy goes back up again after 4pm.

Matching tasks to energy levels

This is pretty straight forward but you do need to give it some conscious thought so that you don’t just start working from top to bottom, treating every task equally.

Tasks that require creativity are best done in the early morning because at that time your brain hasn’t been flooded with other thoughts from everything happening around you. You’ll feel more free and ideas will come more easily.

Tasks requiring high levels of concentration and deep thinking, where the outcome is not already well known in advance, will need your highest energy levels.

Routine tasks, or things where the outcome is known and it’s just a matter of executing the steps, can be done when your energy levels are low to moderate.

What can you do when energy levels are really low?

Take a break!

Taking a break is probably one of the best things you can do at these times. What’s the point of sitting at your desk reading the same paragraph over and over again because you’re too tired for your brain to register what you’re doing?

Go outside and walk around the building for 5 mins, then come back and do one Pomodoro on a low energy task. This can get you back in the zone and all of a sudden your energy levels rise enough to be productive.

You can also take a quick nap. Set a timer for 20 minutes and doze off in your chair. Actually, maybe dozing off in an empty meeting room would be better if you’re working in an office. A 20 minute nap will significantly boost your energy levels.

Planning the night before

As you create your task list for tomorrow, pick out the task that you won’t enjoy and that you’re most likely to procrastinate on. Make this your most important task for the day and do it when your energy levels are at their highest. For example, plan to tackle this task first thing in the morning (also known as eating your frog).

Alternatively, select a task that is most likely to get squeezed out when you run out of time. Important but not urgent tasks that align with your goals are good candidates for this. Plan to do these tasks at high energy, low distraction times of the day to make sure the urgent tasks that pop up don’t squeeze out these types of tasks.

For example I’m writing this article first thing this morning, before opening email, before most of my colleagues are in the office, and making great progress! If I had left it to after work, it would most likely have been squeezed out by other urgent priorities – this has actually happened over the last couple of days.

Next, pick out a couple of tasks that don’t require much concentration and you feel like you could easily do them in your sleep. Plan to work on these at the time when your energy levels are lower.

At the time when your energy levels are almost non-existent and you’re not going to be able to concentrate at all, plan to have a break, a nap, a walk, or some physical activity rather than mental activity.

This way you’ll be matching your tasks to your energy levels. However be weary of creating a rigid schedule – you don’t want to be constantly facing resistance just to try to stick to a plan.

How this helps stay on track with your goals

Reducing reliance on willpower as much as possible by implementing systems and setting up your environment for productivity gives you the best chance of consistently meeting your goals.

Working with your natural energy levels rather than struggling against them aligns with this concept.

You’ll be eliminating sources of resistance as much as possible and creating every chance that you’ll take action without needing to exercise strong willpower – this is a winning combination that will improve your ability to consistently take action, and it’s this consistent action that will lead to great things.

How do you work with your natural energy levels?

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practiceDo you find great new techniques all the time but never actually implement them? Have you decided to try a new idea only to keep discovering more new ideas, strategies and tools before you realise any benefits? If it feels like there are so many new things you learn about however you still don’t make any real improvement in your capability, then maybe you’re experiencing too much theory and not enough practice. This post will give you a tool to get out of that cycle by making execution on your ideas a way of life.

Too much theory, not enough practice

Imagine you have a tendency to read widely to discover all the techniques and strategies out there before committing to trying one. When you finally start, you come across another great technique and want to reconsider your choice and learn more about the new technique.

You could go on learning more and more things, then starting to forget the things you learned earlier. During this time you haven’t made any lasting improvements. You haven’t realised the benefits of any of your learning.

Building a bias towards execution

Instead of learning more and more, and then forgetting while never realising the benefits of the new things you discover, follow these steps when learning something new:

  1. Read or watch a video or listen to a recording of the new technique
  2. After one session spent learning, practice what you know
  3. Don’t allow yourself to progress any further into the theory without having practiced what you know
  4. Only once you’ve practiced, learn the next step
  5. Continue to learn and practice alternately building a bias towards execution

When you don’t allow yourself to continue reading chapter after chapter, new technique after new technique, you make execution into a sticking habit. Once execution is a sticking habit that’s ingrained into your learning, you guarantee progress and start making the lasting improvements; actually reaping the rewards from your work.

Why you should build a bias towards execution

Think of the great people you admire for achieving something. These people aren’t admired because they learned about a huge number of possible strategies and tools. They’re admired because they took action on one thing and made a change.

Just look at the vast sea of productivity techniques and strategies, simple and complex, aimed at increasing your effectiveness. Francesco Cirillo probably studied many of these. However most people know him as inventor of the Pomodoro technique – one thing that he discovered and took action on, not the (probably) hundreds of other things he’s learned about.

The other key motivation of course is that the execution, the actions, are what moves you towards your goals. Setting some goals for yourself and then watching the time evaporate as you read and learn more and more without taking action can be frustrating. Building action as a habit into your learning avoids this by ensuring you’re always taking consistent action.

Making learning stick

We retain more when we use all of our senses to actively learn something. For example visualising, drawing a diagram, comparing something new against some previous knowledge, even associating something with a smell or touch.

Building action into your learning as a habit will make it much more likely that you retain what you’ve learned.

Have you been in a situation where you felt you’ve repeated the same mistake more than once or twice? Pick out the learning from the mistake, find the solution but don’t leave it at that. Practice the solution. Actually implement it even if it’s not applicable right at that moment. Taking action in this way will make the learning stick.

In summary

Actions are what makes you progress in life, not learning about new technique after new technique with no action.

Consistently executing the right actions makes it much more likely that you achieve what you set out to do rather than losing motivation after a few days.

You can achieve this consistency by making practice into a built in habit triggered whenever you’re learning something new.

How do you balance learning with execution?

lychee-1078x515Some days you get to work, sit down and just don’t feel like focussing on the task at hand. Even though you’ve planned for the day the night before, that motivational spark to get you started is not there. You stare at the screen; Motivation has completely vanished! It’s nowhere in sight! So instead you start browsing the Internet, emails, purposely looking for distractions which doesn’t help your productivity and hence happiness. This post will teach you how spending 2 minutes in a benefit stacking brainstorm can give you that motivation to keep on track.

Knowing your ‘why’

Good productivity systems will make it close to effortless and can make it close to inevitable that you actually spend time working on tasks that take you towards your goals. However if all motivation has vanished, even the most effective system will see you feeling tired, resisting and looking for distractions.

So we know we still need motivation.

Motivation comes from the reasons why you’ve decided you want to do something in the first place. There must be an underlying reason why you’ve set goals and built productivity systems to help you achieve them. This ‘why’ is the source of your energy and motivation. It’s what keeps you going.

Sometimes you might forget your ‘why’, causing you to stall.

Benefit stacking brainstorm

The two minute benefit stacking brainstorm will help you discover ‘why’ and spark the motivation to throw yourself back into execution mode. Here are the steps:

  1. Think of a benefit that will come from you executing your task, doesn’t matter how small
  2. Then brainstorm another benefit that spins off the first and stack it on top
  3. Now brainstorm another and stack this on top
  4. When the stack of benefits tips the scale you’ll feel overwhelmed with desire to execute the task

It takes only 2 minutes and you’ve got enough motivation to start executing, then the momentum and your usual productivity systems take over.

Why benefit stacking works

Even if you’ve completely forgotten your reasons for wanting to work on task, it’s easy to think of one positive thing that will come from doing that work.

Our brains are excellent at brainstorming!

A second small benefit can quickly be conjured and stacked on top of that first one. With enough benefits your underlying reasons why you wanted to perform that task in the first place becomes clearer. A few small benefits linked together lead you to think of a larger benefit which links to one of your goals.

All of a sudden you’ve rediscovered your reasons for setting the goal resulting in a flood of motivation that makes it effortless to start executing the small task at hand.

Further reading – This post at high performance lifestyle has some great examples of how to use the benefit stacking technique.

What motivational hacks do you use to boost your energy and start executing your plans?

productivity_toolsHave you ever been fed up with your productivity blueprint not helping you achieve your goals and wanted to throw it out? Have you wanted to just throw away all systems and just take action to achieve an outcome? This post follows my thinking that led to a new, simplified and lightweight productivity blueprint to help focus on fewer goals over a shorter period and operate in a cycle to become help me become a goal achieving factory. It might help launch you into the same journey to develop your own productivity blueprint for the next year!

Not progressing towards goals

Lately I’ve been busy and haven’t had the extra energy or motivation to work on some of the goals I set at the start of the year.

Every year around November-December I review my productivity blueprint and systems and think about what I’m going to do next year.

I was tired of not achieving some of those goals and thought the processes and systems were not motivating me to take action. I was stuck repeating the same things, even though I followed my process.

Another problem was I included reoccurring things like writing blog posts and exercising, as goals. So I felt like I was acting on the goals, however didn’t spend any time on the non-reoccurring goals like studying a particular book – and these were the things I really wanted to do. I just felt completely stuck on them because I didn’t have the extra energy or motivation act.

Will it be more effective to focus on actions and not waste any time on processes or systems?

This time I thought, instead of spending time coming up with another productivity blueprint yet again, maybe all I need to do is write 12 things, each on a separate card, and just have one card in front of me for each month. Looking at it every day and making sure I took some action each day and achieved each card at the end of the month.

I thought, forget about designing processes and systems, taking up lots of time, and just do this simple approach this time.

After doing some research on process vs. outcome, I re-discovered this article I read over a year ago – Forget about goals. Focus on this instead. I remembered how wise I was to focus on process rather than outcome by the simple example:

The author was fatigued near the end of his workout. If thinking about reaching a specific goal such as lifting X weight, he would have completed the last set and possibly injured himself. However thinking about systems instead, he had no trouble stopping the workout and moving on. If he keeps working out consistently, he’ll lift heavier weights in the long run. Goals being about the short term result only whereas systems being about the long term, always win.

The problem with the old productivity blueprint

Last year I had simplified my productivity process to a blueprint with some focus lenses and a few systems, and a separate list of about 8 goals for the year that would feed into my task management system.

I completed the reoccurring goals (writing and exercise) however spent all my energy and time on those. Having these particular goals worked out very well when I had these as goals for the first time in a previous year.

However this year, it resulted in me becoming complacent and not acting on the non-reoccurring goals nor doing anything related to the broad focus areas, and this made me feel stuck. I felt like I was repeating the same steps every day and not making progress.

I realised I did still need both goals and systems. However I needed to simplify the system further and make it more practical and focussed.

Tweaking the productivity blueprint to change focus and discard irrelevant aspects

Now I’ve taken what worked, discarded the rest and changed the goal setting.

I listed all the individual productivity techniques and systems that I have actually been using and want to use, as well as two new ones that I really needed to stop neglecting as they would be very effective in resolving that ‘stuck’ feeling.

Then connecting these in a spiral on a page of the systems and techniques I’d use every day, going out to every 1-2 days, going out to the systems I use once a week, and finally goal setting and reflecting each quarter and back into the core systems again.

Visually it looks a little like this.

spiraldex

No reoccurring goals

Over the years I had successfully integrated the reoccurring goals into my routine and although I wanted to keep doing them, I didn’t want them to take away from achieving those non-reoccurring goals as that achieving the non-reoccurring goals is what would make me feel progress.

So I didn’t consider the reoccurring goals as goals anymore – I added them to the spiral of systems since they had really become systems.

New quarterly goal setting approach

Instead of having a large list of goals I thought I would take some wisdom from the 12 week year. I would pick just 2 goals to achieve over a 3 month period. Then the next quarter, pick another 2 goals.

Each day, I’d do my planning for the next day as always, and put an action for one of these two goals on each day. Then I’d look at these 2 goals every day and plan what I had to do to achieve them by the end of the 3 month period.

Revitalised and refocussed productivity blueprint

This way I’ve:

  • Got a very simple 2 goals and 3 months to think about every day, along with my tasks for that day and that’s it
  • My reoccurring goals no longer interfere with this, as they are now just part of my systems; so I am guaranteeing focus on my 2 non-reoccurring goals and I won’t feel stuck.
  • With only 2 goals, I will definitely be able to take action on them.
  • I still have all my productivity systems listed in one visual place, simplified to the practical things I do and want to keep doing consistently to make it inevitable that I’ll achieve my 2 goals and have consistent productivity while doing it.
  • I don’t have any focus areas or other broad things that I never act on anyway – these will now be one of my 2 goals if I want to improve in those areas

Now I have a very simplified, practical productivity process that will become a goal achieving factory, fed by 2 simple goals and a plan every 3 months, and I haven’t lost or forgotten about any of the effective productivity steps I’ve learned along the journey.

P.S. Just writing and doing some research for this post, I’ve found so many systems other people have designed to increase productivity. I think my new system will help me direct my focus to my 2 goals using my productivity systems while remaining very light weight, not requiring time spent on the process itself.

You’ll need to try a productivity process, then bend and adapt it till you come up with something that meets your needs!

How do you revise your productivity systems? Or have you found something that works perfectly for you?

increase-employee-productivity-300x201

politeHave you ever had really tough business stakeholders on your project with very strong views about what they want, conflicting with a CIO or high level IT executive driving you for on time and on budget project delivery? This post is for the contractors or consultants on projects in roles such as subject matter experts, analysts, project managers and change managers. Remember you are a contractor. Always be polite and don’t take sides.

Politeness and knowing how to say ‘no’ without saying ‘NO!’ will help you be well liked and respected by all your stakeholders.

Here’s a story to illustrate this.

The CIO has hired you to deliver project X

It’s not an overly complex project; you’re not building a space station… you’re just building an IT system. However the project is highly visible and your stakeholders have very strong opinions and views about what they want.

Your stakeholders are asking for exciting features. Your CIO is asking you to do the minimum, to stay within budget. You know the exciting features could derail your project, so what do you do?

Taking sides is a recipe for disaster.

If you just say yes to everything the stakeholders ask for, clearly your project will go over budget, will not meet the schedule and may even be cancelled, resulting in you needing to look for a new job.

The CIO hired you, so you should focus on meeting their needs above all else right? Therefore you should always challenge the business and aim to eliminate any scope creep and stop any requests that make delivery of the project more difficult. This would help the project stay on time and on budget and please the CIO.

Wrong!

This would start to be viewed as taking the side of IT delivery and attempting to supress the business stakeholders’ voice. If distrust or negative feelings arise your stakeholders may comment to others and this can escalate very quickly to cause trouble for you.

Your project exists to make life easier for the business

While you do need to remember where your pay check comes from, you also need to note that the reason the project exists at all is to make life easier for the business!

If a stakeholder feels very strongly about a topic, you need to advocate for them. If you achieve a positive outcome for the stakeholders which makes life easier for the business, then the CIO will be happy that the project was a success.

So even if the CIO is drilling you for on time and on budget, don’t lose sight of the fact that IT is there to serve the business (unless maybe if you’re in a software development company). The CIO doesn’t know what the real needs of the business are and what will make the most difference to them. So you are doing your job by advocating for the business and going as far as you can to get what they want. This is ultimately helping the CIO reach the true purpose of their projects – making life easier for the business.

Always make the business feel heard and understood and go as far as you can to get what they need.

Perception is important

A perception that you are trying to supress your stakeholders, ignoring their wishes or being mean/hostile towards them will cause negative comments to come out against you.

Similarly a perception you are taking every fantastical request at face value and not challenging the real need and looking for alternatives to solve a problem, will lead your CIO to think that you’re going to cause the project to fail.

Both situations will damage your reputation which is especially important as a contractor. You won’t be just sitting in the same company for 10 years where it won’t affect you to make a few enemies. Damage to your reputation will make it harder to find a reference, and if the people you anger know people in other companies, it might become harder to get a role and succeed in those companies as well.

So how do you maintain a positive image and keep all your stakeholders on side?

Always be polite

This is the simplest rule that you might sometimes forget but which is highly important in every interaction. Even if your stakeholders are being mean or threatening to you, always be polite.

And it doesn’t cost you anything.

If someone expresses a strong view on something that they want from your project, say “Yes definitely. I’m sure we will be able to do that. I’ll follow that up.”

Then you can follow up with a simple email to a decision maker and copy the stakeholder. Stating the benefits of the request and asking if the project can proceed. This lets your stakeholder know that you’ve heard them, and you’re working on resolving their concern and getting them what they’ve asked for.

Remember to always be polite. Never give an outright ‘no’ or say ‘we can’t do that’ or reject a request.

Everything is always achievable.

If you are dealing with someone critical who can’t be turned down, remember the scene from the Goodwife – Saying “Yes” and then indefinite time passing means “No”.

Always be positive

Even if your CIO expresses to your personally how difficult some of the stakeholders are, you need to remain impartial and positive.

One of the reasons companies hire contractors and consultants is because they want someone without baggage. They want someone who will come in fresh and just focus on getting the job done without taking sides and getting buried in interdepartmental politics.

Gossip and negative comments may come in to you from all the different stakeholders of your project, but it runs through the machine and filters and your output is always positive and aimed at achieving the best outcome for the customers of your company.

Gossip + negative may come in -> Positive always comes out

Respect your stakeholders

No matter who your stakeholders are or how bad they seem, they were put in that position to represent the business. Treat them like business stakeholders and be respectful. Make sure you create the feeling in your stakeholders that you are listening to their concerns and you’re doing your best to find solutions and get the best outcome for them.

Remember you are a contractor

As a contractor, your reputation means a great deal and is part of what gets you your next role.

There are two key parts to being really well liked and respected, and having strong relationships with all your stakeholders – Politeness and knowing how to say ‘no’ without saying ‘NO!’.

Have you had to maintain your politeness and positive relationships with stakeholders when being pulled in different directions? What’s your strategy?

Have you been through an intense time during a project and have a tingling feeling that there’s a learning somewhere in there but you don’t quite understand it? Or feel like you’ve discovered a repeatable pattern but can’t quite qualify and express it? Writing a short article like a blog post, to explain the discovery to someone else, will clarify your thoughts and give you a better understanding of your discovery. Not to mention improving your ability to express yourself with the typed word. You’ll also be sharing your insights to help others.

5 simple steps will help you quickly write a great article:

  1. Have an insight (if no insights available… go for a run, or think about what problems or complaints the people around you have)
  2. Just type!
  3. Create an introductory paragraph and executive summary
  4. Put down a heading for each key idea that together lead to your conclusion
  5. Fill in the details

Writing clarifies your thoughts

As you type your thoughts onto the screen, you start to organise them. The thoughts evolve from single independent thoughts to a cohesive story. Things that didn’t quite connect or didn’t quite make sense in your mind become clear when you write them down.

Also, as you read back what you’ve written, you realise that things that you thought made sense clearly don’t! You then start to add the bridges between the ideas that are needed for someone else to understand.

Your article then becomes a complete story that can be read and understood by others, allowing you to convey a message in a way that wouldn’t be possible with just the single independent thoughts you started with.

What can you do with clarified thoughts?

When you clarify your thoughts into a complete lesson that can be passed on, you’re building a foundation. This provides a spring board into further insights that you wouldn’t have been able to achieve without first solidifying the lesson that you’ve learned.

It’s like this quote from Isaac Newton – If I have seen further, it’s by standing on the shoulders of giants.

This is one more really important contribution to your journey to productivity – You can progress onto newer ideas and new insights, achieving the next level in your productivity, rather than keeping the same thoughts tumbling around.

Let’s get started!

How to start your article

Start typing! The quickest way to create your article is to just start typing whatever is on your mind at the moment. Don’t worry about whether it’s coherent… Just type!

Rearranging and building on a few sentences that are already on the page is much easier than creating something from nothing.

Once you have a couple of sentences, you’ll have a much clearer idea of what you’re covering in the article. Quickly put down all the headings you need to create a structure. A basic structure would be to add a title, then one heading per key idea to make up the middle, then a conclusion or call to action.

With the structure in place, it’s then simply a matter of putting in the appropriate level of detail under each heading to convey your message. As you start putting in the detail you’ll be in the zone, with so much momentum that it’ll feel like the words are easily flowing out of you. Now you can rearrange things as you go and the original ramblings you jotted down will transform into a great masterpiece!

I find it easiest to just start typing a few words about the broad concept I am thinking of, then create an introductory paragraph that serves as an executive summary – what this article is about and what you’ll learn from reading it. This is the hard part. After you have that executive summary, it’s easy to put down each key idea you have around that concept as a heading that leads to a conclusion and then start filling in the details so that it makes sense to your audience.

So in summary, if you’re wrestling with a new idea write an article to clarify your thoughts and build a foundation for reaching new heights. Just follow these 5 steps:

  1. Have an insight
  2. Just type!
  3. Create an introductory paragraph and executive summary
  4. Put down a heading for each key idea that together lead to your conclusion
  5. Fill in the details

What benefits do you get from writing / blogging / journaling?