Mind Your Language

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Most people interrupt and distract their colleagues during the day;  it’s inevitable. Not that they would see their interruption as a distraction per se – they are requesting information; seeking advice; asking for help or handing out more work.
 
Whilst it is true that there are occasions when we need to immediately interrupt people, there are also times when we think we need to, but could probably wait. This is an important distinction. Productive people and productive teams know how to differentiate between these situations and manage them accordingly. Productivity is a team sport. Here’s what I mean.
 
I’m not suggesting for one moment that you should be inflexible, difficult or un-cooperative with other people when they interrupt you. I merely want to point out that in those moments when people try to distract us we have choices.
 
In broad terms, these choices are:

  1. Ignore them
  2. Put the open palm of your hand up to their face within 1 cm of the tip of their nose and say “NO”
  3. Ask them, “Is it urgent?”
  4. Ask them, “Is it important?”
  5. Ask them, “What do you want?”
  6. Tell them politely, “I’m just in the middle of something, I’ll come and find you in 20 minutes” (Or words to that effect)

 
1 and 2 are unacceptable.
 
3 and  4 are dangerous.
 
Why? Because you know what the answer will be. It will be, “Yes!”. Think…… when was the last time you heard someone say, “This week I’m working on non-urgent and un-important tasks!”
 
(People feel good when they have shifted something off their desk onto someone else’s. It gives them a sense of accomplishment. They have cleared something from their list of jobs. Psychologists refer to this as “instant gratification”. You begin to feed this need for instant gratification when you ask “Is it important?” or “Is it urgent?” so drop these questions from your repertoire.
 
5 engages them in dialogue which could be lengthy, and so makes the potential distraction an actual one.
 
6 on the other hand, is a very effective, professional and respectful way to respond which gives you what you want (time to focus and finish the job at hand) and them what they want (your time and attention) – what you are saying is, “YES but not right now”. This is particularly powerful, if you’ve planned your day to include set periods reserved for going back to colleagues who need your time. See previous tips.
 

That "Free-Day" Feeling

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When the “beast from the East” brought us snow it led to many things being cancelled – trains, planes, meetings, social events etc. When something is unexpectedly cancelled we can feel disappointed but sometimes we experience the “free day” feeling. Not to be confused with that “Friday feeling” but they both feel good (smiley face).

That “free day” feeling is that feeling you get when someone says the training event or meeting tomorrow is cancelled and you get a “bonus” or “extra” day to catch up on your work.

You sigh a sigh of relief and relish the thought of getting back on top of things. You know what I mean. So I thought., “Why not design these into your work life?” Because I have noticed that even the most productive, efficient and disciplined people don’t get everything done every week. None of us are perfect.

My estimate is that each week people have a couple of hours of catching up to do to “truly stay on top” and feel great about their productivity. Over a month this will mount up to 1 days worth of work and you know how quickly work can mount up don’t you? So that’s why, a few years ago, I ran my “catch-up” experiment. Knowing each month I was at risk of being behind by 1 day I scheduled in a “catch up day” on the third Wednesday of every month. Why then? because for me that was a good time. But for you there might be a better time.

The rule I set for that day was that I booked nothing into it and protected it from others booking time in it. The “catch up” day provides the macro buffer of time I need to continually feel on top of things PLUS I get that “free day” feeling at least 12 times a year.

Because of the “beast from the East” I got a bonus “free day” today which has been my inspiration for this TIP.

Are you spending enough time pitch side?

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Imagine you managed a sports team. Why would you get “pitch side”? To watch the game, to show your support, to observe the tactics of both sides, to study individual performances, to assess team work, to lift spirits at the break, to ensure focus at crucial times, to celebrate and to console. When the game is being played we get insights and add value that we cannot add from simply studying the results.

In sport, as in business, the results are everything. But if we only study the results, and not how we came to them then we’re bound to be left confused, and wondering why performances are varied or unpredictable.

It’s no surprise that sports directors, managers & coaches are regularly “pitch side” with their team.

Never is this more important than when we’re managing people who are managing others.

So...

When was the last time you watched one of your managers motivate, coach, inspire, challenge, re-focus and re-engage their team?

This isn’t a luxury we can indulge in half way through the season (when H1 results are published) or when the team in sports parlance, is on the slide (consistently underperforming). This needs to be a regular feature of our routine. Because it’s this routine which creates winning rhythm and habits. And by setting an example, we establish best practice for our managers and how they in turn deal with their own teams.

Every day your team of managers step onto the field of play. What frame of mind are they in on Monday? Are they looking at last week’s results to figure out how to perform better today? Is their focus and motivation in the right place? Are they practicing the things they need to practice and is the quality of this practice going to deliver sustainably better performance? Do they have a clear set of next steps in mind, to deliver what you need them to deliver?

There is one reason we at Smarter Not Harder hear time and again for not getting pitch side: There isn’t enough time.

So we’ve asked the question, “What’s the minimum time I need to spend pitch side each week with people in my team to lead and manage them effectively?” Or to put it another way, “How do I performance-manage, coach, motivate, focus attention, build team spirit, develop talent, create succession plans and still have time for all my other duties?”

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As is our philosophy, we believe that you can achieve what you need to achieve, in the time you have available by adopting a “light touch” approach to leading and managing.

We know there are a set of highly focused, specific activities which influence all the above but can be achieved in minutes with your people, not hours.

Here’s an example of our pitch side practice: Drop in on your manager’s weekly team meeting, only staying for as long as your diary allows. Observe how the meeting is set up, what the agenda is, who contributes, how communication is flowing. Then call the manager in for 10 minutes when time allows and ask a few basic questions: “What do you think was good about the way you set up the meeting?” “What went well?” Set a foundation for improvement. Then ask your manager, “What two or three things might you change to improve?” “Which one would you tackle first?” This encourages self-analysis and prioritization. After that it takes only 5 minutes or a quick e-mail exchange to update each other on how the next meeting went. That ensures your manager is held accountable for their own self-improvement and completes the circle.

Working pitch side like this, we think you’ll be amazed at how little time you need to devote, to get remarkable returns.

How to do a proper To-Do

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Who likes to feel out of control at work? Who likes to feel continually behind with their work? Who likes to feel overwhelmed?


Not many of us I would guess, but many of us have felt this way at some point and probably  in the fairly recent past. This article can help you reverse, reduce and permanently remove these potentially damaging situations from your work life.

On the last working day before people go on holiday most people create a list. They do this to ensure they forget nothing, prioritize, plan, stay focused and motivated. People like lists because they are quick and simple to create. But they don’t seem to like them enough to do them every day, do they?

This is strange because there are few work days where you would want to forget to do things, where you wouldn’t want to prioritize and plan your tasks, where you wouldn’t want a plan to keep you focused and motivated. So why don’t people always create a list?

Simply because the list which most people have been “advised” to use, the TO DO list, does not work. I’d like to explain why it doesn’t and give you two alternative, more effective solutions:

If you look at a selection of TO DO lists written by different people you will frequently discover:-

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  1. Few are prioritised (1st, 2nd 3rd, 4th)
  2. Very few have an estimate of time allocated to each item (#1 – 45mins, #2 – 20mins, #3 – 75mins, #4 – 30mins)
  3. Few contain a line for BREAKS (coffee, lunch and afternoon stretch)
  4. Very few contain a line for interruptions and distractions (unexpected emails, messages, texts, phone calls, people turning up at your desk for example)
  5. Few contain a line for managing email (i.e. not doing the work that’s in the email just sorting through them) or managing other messaging systems
  6. Very few allocate time for planning today or the next day… or the next week

If people don’t prioritise (point 1) they can be indecisive or easily knocked off course during the day. Worst still other people indirectly end up prioritising for them or they spend their entire day asking “What shall I do next?” (dangerous because people often make this decision emotionally, or allow other people again to decide for them).

Point2 - By not estimating how long each item will take you do not have a way of checking how realistic your plan is and do not improve your forecasting skills. This means expectations and expectation setting are often inaccurate which creates undesirable stress and pressure.

Finally if you do not consider points 3,4,5 and 6 not only does your list become “ridiculously” over ambitious, because you’ve ignored in the region of 3 hours of activities, but it will not give you the flexibility to respond to the inevitable requests at short notice.

This is why people give up on TO DO lists. They are not fit for purpose. People tire of seeing their list continually grow and tire of transferring items from list to list, day in day out. So here are 2 better alternatives:-

QUICK FIX

THE QUICK FIX – Write off half of your day to items 3,4,5 and 6 and only plan/prioritise the other half (a simple solution but not quite so elegant as the best fix)

THE BEST FIX

Remember that if you don’t plan your time there is always plenty of other people willing to step in everyday to do that job for you!

When Less is More

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Scientists very early in their career will be introduced to the idea of Ockham’s Razor. William of Ockham was a medieval monk and natural scientist who suggested that all other things being equal, the best theory or idea is the simplest and most straightforward of all the alternatives.

Like all good ideas, it’s easy to see echoes of this in a wide number of disciplines. I’m thinking of Lean Manufacturing as pioneered by Toyota, or Jack Welch’s famous drive at GE to encourage speed, simplicity and self-confidence. Simplicity is something we also respond to on an emotional level – that’s why minimalist interior design, or Zen gardens have caught the popular imagination in these hectic times. Common sense tells us that in many situations, less really is more.

This has got me thinking though. How often do you see the training and development sector take a similar position?

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How often do you hear an external consultant say... 

"I can teach you most of what you need to know in a couple of hours"

Or ask themselves outloud,

"What can we take out of our program, to make things easier to understand and implement?"

 

The fact is, in learning and development the values of simplicity are rarely applied to the way people are taught to lead and manage employees. And I think there is a very simply reason why this “leap” in thinking has not yet taken place.

In learning and development, conventional thinking is still, just that: conventional. It tells us that to improve leadership and management you must put more stuff in. It’s all about giving more content, more theories, more concepts, more data, moreskills, and more new ideas. Why? Because that’s what justifies the expensive price tag of the trainer, the big thud of the learners’ folders, or the plush hotel everyone convenes at to consume this learning.

This thinking also explains that feeling you often get when you’ve read a best-selling self-help or business book: ‘That was interesting, I’ve picked up 3 useful ideas, but the author could easily have passed on their ideas in a few pages – and I slightly resent being made to wade through the other 225 pages of guff…’

I think the training sector needs to have the confidence to be unconventional and believe that the value of its ideas are in their impact – not in their page count, weight or duration. The smart thinking is all about ‘what can we take out?’

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I would suggest the new place to start is to work out how we remove, de-clutter, simplify and streamline our learning process

For people who have followed or even promoted conventional thinking, I admit this is truly frightening territory. Why? Because for too long, most leadership and management development courses have all been about “putting stuff in” rather than taking stuff out, and having a model based on daily rates (days which they have to fill to give customers the perception that they are getting value for money).

At Smarter Not Harder we’ve spent years analysing exactly what works, and what is essential, so that learners get the most from their time and the most meaningful learning from it. The question we are always pre-occupied with is, “what’s the least amount of time people need to spend each month to effectively lead/manage one employee?” We answer that by supplying just the learning that managers need to achieve this. It means our clients are able to lead and manage effectively in only a third of the time it normally takes & can learn to do this in hours rather than days. How many other suppliers – who all bill on a daily basis – will promote themselves this way?

We do it, because we feel we’re doing what the rest of the industry urgently needs to do. And remember, with us, ‘simple’ doesn’t mean ‘easy’ or ‘less’ or ‘lazy’ or anything that is less than satisfactory. When you give people back time, and when you enable them to operate using just the best bits of management theory, they understand that all the extraneous stuff they were consuming before just wasn’t giving them any value.

Often, less really is more and we believe we can show you just how transformative it can really be.  

Why To-Do lists often become To-Don’t lists…

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The reason most people fail with their to-do lists is because what they actually create is an ‘everything list’.


Like sunrise follows sunset, there are some things in life that are practically certain. Take, for example, that frequently shared life-lesson that someone, somewhere along the line will have definitely said to you: that if you want to get better at time management and productivity, you’ve got to do a ‘To-Do’ list.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Far be it from me to spoil the party (I’m just as certain some of you might know about a famous psychology study that found people are 42% more likely to achieve their goals if they write them down), but hear me out. The point of a to-do list is to divide your day in such a way that you are in control of it. That is its purpose. I don’t actually have a problem with to-do lists – it’s just the way people do them. For it’s my belief that not only do 99.9% of people fail to do them properly, in doing so they actually discourage themselves from ever utilising their time more effectively – which is the very reason they wanted to do them in the first place.

So why is this? Well, what happened last time you wrote your own to-do list? Did it turn into an impossibly long, never to be completed document where tasks got pushed to the next day, and then the next day, like a continually leaping frog? How did this list make you feel? Defeated? Arguably. Reminded of just how much you have still to get done? Probably. The fact is, people don’t like seeing their own disorganisation, and most of the time to-do lists are evidence of just this - labels of failure. They might have initially felt satisfying to create, but now they resemble receipts of under-performance.

However, it needn’t be like this. The reason most people fail with their to-do lists is because what they actually create is an ‘everything list’. Make your To-do list a ‘To-day list’ – things you should aim to get done that day [we believe this so much we’ve actually just trademarked the phrase].

Linked to this though is perhaps the single-biggest reason to-do lists lose favour – tasks are almost never assigned with a predicted time-to-take. It sounds simple, but it rarely happens. A To-Day list should really be incorporated into a daily schedule. That's where they make most sense to be, because tasks take time.

But there are other things people forget too. What about interruptions that give rise to new and unexpected tasks? While they may not be things we actually ‘want’ to achieve on that specific day [scientists say we are interrupted by something on average every three to eight minutes], we all suffer them.

What I hope is becoming clear is that we need to challenge ‘to-do’ lists. It’s only via a new way of thinking, that people can prioritise and make realistic judgements about what they can achieve with the available time in their day.

None of this is rocket-science. It’s simple stuff. But sometimes simple isn’t obvious. Time management is a skill that needs to be practiced, but take these few simple tips onboard, and you really will change the way you work. My advice is this: Turn to-do lists into to-day lists, to make the ‘do’ really become ‘done’.

The problem with productivity… (and it’s not what you think)

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Improving productivity isn’t just about staff learning new skills;  it’s also about organisations themselves acquiring a new productivity mindset


Talk to any CEO or FD (as we do all the time), and the likelihood is that of all the things they worry about most, it’s ‘productivity’ that either comes top, or is very nearly top of their list.

Why? Well, the fact of the matter is, Britain has a longstanding ‘productivity problem’. Last year an All Party Parliamentary report concluded that UK output, on a per-hourly basis, was 17% lower than the G7 average. Not only is this the widest it’s been since 1992, but overall output per worker is 19% lower. Of all the G7 countries, only Japan performs worse.

In some respects it’s easy to see why this is the case. In industrial Britain, pulleys gears and mechanical processes dictated people’s output. But in today’s service-dominated economy, staff are no longer working production lines; they are no longer regimented by structure – and the reality is, that in these structure-less circumstances, consistent productivity is a pipedream. Not only do employees face an unrelenting tide of emails, meeting requests and miscellaneous activities that fritter away their time, most offices are open-plan – which also means ‘work’ is itself a fertile ground for interruption & distraction rather than focused concentration

And yet, despite all of this, perhaps the biggest problem with productivity is less that it actually exists (for this is almost a post-industrial certainty), but more the fact organisations don’t think it’s something staff can be trained & developed to improve.

Let me explain. Employers spend thousands of pounds putting their staff on all sorts of other courses, the latest of which is ‘resilience’ training – the new silver-bullet. But, really, all this does is reveal that organisations are looking at things the wrong way round. When you think about it, wanting staff to be more resilient isn’t really very good for employees at all – because it’s about firms saying they want their staff to take on even more work – just not feel as swamped by it.

The fact is, piling people up with more work isn’t a long-term answer to solving low productivity. The only answer is to make people better in dealing with their time in the first place. It’s a subtle, but important difference.

Companies we work with who recognise productivity is a learnable skill see the sorts of improvements resilience-led employers can only dream of. Clients that learn our productivity skills [being disciplined about time; having a system for planning the day; setting achievable lists; building-in interruption time; and working out periods of better ‘flow’] report productivity gains of 10-15%. Or, to put it another way, each member of staff gains around three days extra per month. These are gains that make a demonstrable bottom-line difference.

And it’s worth remembering something else too. Improving productivity isn’t just about staff learning new skills; it’s also about organisations themselves acquiring a new productivity mindset too.

So often we hear that people ‘fear’ being seen to be more productive and efficient than their co-workers – simply because they don’t want to be swamped with more and more work. Yet, it’s this culture of fear that maintains mediocrity and what encourages the ‘good enough’ (rather than ‘great’). Shouldn’t employers be striving for something better than this? Don’t they want to encourage their staff to be better bosses of themselves, so that they willingly grasp new opportunities; from a starting point of engagement rather than ennui?

What we find is that when employees feel in control, and have the tools they need to manage their time properly, they no longer just want to do the minimum, or just do what is good enough. They soon discover that with the time they have spare, they want to do more, suggest new things, take on new projects, simply because they’ve grown to want to do their jobs well again. Engagement is a powerful feeling to foster. Firms full of people that are highly engaged are proven to be more productive too. What’s not to like about that?

Distractions 1 ….. Focus 0

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Nobody goes to work thinking, “how many people can I distract today” - do they? But all of us do distract others, both consciously or not. And all of us suffer from being distracted.g distracted.


We can define a distraction as something which breaks our concentration – a person dropping by our desk, the phone ringing, an email arriving, a text or message alert popping up. The latest research says that we are distracted at work every three to eight minutes. That’s between  60-160 distractions for an 8 hour working day (“If only!”… I hear you say… to the 8 hour day that is!).
 
So I’ve written this article to be read in two minutes and fifty seconds in the hope that you can fit it in before you are distracted again.
 
We all know how much of a problem this has become, don’t we? Not only has the new, interconnected and wired world become more distracting. But, it’s designed to keep you distracted – click on the alert, and you’ll be drawn into reading the article. Answer the insistent ringing of the phone, and you’ll be hooked into a conversation.
 
Yet one thing hasn’t changed. Every day must come to an end, never to be repeated – time is and will always be the most precious of resources.
 
So how do we minimise distractions and make the most of the time we have each day?

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Well as we often say at SNH...

roductive use of time is a team sport.

Your team needs to be conscious of not distracting others unnecessarily; you need to be aware of when you are distracting the team – and you need to take charge of your environment to elimate unnecessary distractions.  

Here are some simple ways that you can make this happen:

  1. Make an agenda of non-urgent points to raise with colleagues and book a time to deal with them all in one go
  2. Politely tell a colleague who drops by your desk that you have a deadline (no need to share that it’s self imposed) and give them a time you’ll get back to them
  3. Switch off your e-mail and social media alerts and make a conscious choice about when it’s best for you to deal with them
  4. Make a conscious effort to send slightly fewer emails (3 or 4  less) each day

Of course, if productivity is a team sport and you’re on Team Focus playing Team Distraction it’s difficult to keep a clean sheet. But it is remarkably easy before the end of the day to change the score in your favour.

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Focus 3...

Distraction 1

Exploring manager's wellbeing, motivation and productivity

“Good, skilled managers know that they need to switch off and allow their employees to do the same.”

— Ann Francke, Chief Executive CMI

An interesting read by CMI which highlights why we are working so hard to help our clients work Smarter Not Harder through our Personal Productivity sessions.  

Click on the image above to access the article

Holiday Fear

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Keeping that holiday feeling


Returning to work after an annual holiday needn’t leave staff wishing they’d never gone away in the first place, says Neil Massa, Smarter Not Harder.

Holiday season, great isn’t it? Two weeks off and plenty of time to unwind; rest, and re-charge depleted batteries. Well, that’s what holidays are supposed to do anyway. But how many times do you hear people say after their first week back, “It doesn’t feel like I’ve been away at all”. The problem is – for most people – holidays leave them with none of this positive feeling. In fact, far from leaving them suitably rested and recuperated, I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve met who break into a sweat just thinking about the return to work, and find it actually leaves them as tired and as frazzled as they were before they left. With the effort required to catch-up, many wish they’d never been away at all.


Don't blame work, blame lack of time management


Some might say the culprit is simply the build-up of work – projects or actions needed that inevitably pile up. But we would say there is nothing inevitable about this at all, and that the real reason people fail to maintain their holiday state is lack of preparation.

The truth is, even if staff look at emails while they’re away (which kind-off defeats the purpose – but I digress), there’s a basic mathematical reality that most people fail to factor time in for: that for every week a typical worker is away, they need to set aside six hours of time to catch up with what’s happened (i.e. get back in the flow). For a two-week break – that’s 12 hours of ‘stuff’ that needs catching up on – this is stuff they might not even know about, that’s additional to new things that crop up as soon as people are back.

It may sound obvious, but people are far too ambitious about what they think (or are expected), to achieve in their first week back. Even if they spend three hours’ a day catching up, that’s four days’ worth of mornings that are taken up just getting back to state of normality. It’s when people forget about this, and start piling themselves up with new work, that feelings of being unable to cope begin to dominate.


The business of catching up


The failure of holidays to leave people properly rested is a business issue, and so the solution is one the business must support. It must accept what does need to be inevitable – that there is a fall in productivity during the week following each person’s return from holiday – because each person needs to schedule in this vital catch-up time.

Ideally, time catching up should be face-to-face – to discuss with people in person the details of what’s happened, who’s done what, what still needs to be done. It’s far better to do it this way, than try and wade through parts of emails, with replies from different participants that inexorably build up.

But allow it business leaders must. It’s worth remembering businesses will have benefitted from a huge spike in productivity, in the weeks leading up to that person taking their holiday, because they were working extra hard to make sure they got things done. Surely, time to recover from this, is time well spent, if it enables them to get back to work, and not feel they never went away?

Allowing for this six-hours per week away time means staff won’t fear their return to work. It may well be, they don’t need all of this – in which case, you will have earned back some of this time unexpectedly. But preparation is the key. Employees shouldn’t be scared of taking a holiday simply because they dread coming back.