Getting Organized

“Losers have goals. Winners have systems.”

– Scott Adams, Creator of Dilbert Comic Strip

I’ve never been a very organized person.  I don’t plan vacations months in advance.  I forget to respond to emails.  And I’m typically absent-minded, leaving things behind and forgetting appointments.

Over the years I’ve tried a number of different tools to help me stay organized: day planners, PDAs, David Allen’s famous Getting Things Done system.  None worked.  Or I should say none stuck.  Each system would last me a week before I resorted to my old habits. They took too much effort to maintain.

But after 10 years of trial and error, I’ve realized the most effective organizational system for me is:

–  Simple: the less effort, tools and gadgets, the better.
–  Action-focused: keeps me working on my most important tasks
–  Liberating: clears my mind of clutter, anxiety and open loops; frees my “psychic RAM”
–  Leak-proof: insights, reminders, references are all captured

The goal of any organization system should be to have a clear head and feeling of relaxed control.

David Allen, who has helped thousands of professionals get organized, and written THE book on managing workflow, calls this having a “mind like water” that responds appropriately to the force and mass of input like a still pond.

If you feel buried, forgetful, overreactive or underreactive, then you probably need a better system.

So how can we achieve “minds like water?”

The organizational principles from books like Getting to Done and Zen to Done that have helped me the most are:

  1. Capture – “Empty Your Mind”

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.”

– Zen master Sbunryu Suzuki

There need to be designated places where we can empty all the open loops from our head.  We should have as few collection buckets as possible, and we must process them regularly.

Most people will need to capture the following things: goals, ideas, lists, reminders/appointments, email, and reference materials.

I have the following buckets:

–  Google Calendar (for lists, appointments, and reminders)
–  Blackberry Phone (for ideas on the go)
–  Notebook (for ideas)
–  Excel Doc (for goals and list of Most Important Tasks)
–  Gmail (for email and reference)
–  Facebook (for email and reference)
–  Laptop Hard Drive (for ideas and reference)

Most people will have a physical in-basket as well.

The hardest part for me is regularly processing these buckets!  But if we don’t maintain these lists they also become a psychic burden.

2. Process – “Touch Once”

Next we need to clear our physical and virtual inboxes.  We need to work through each item and take action on it. David Allen calls this “transforming stuff into actionable stuff.”

We must determine if the item is actionable or not.  If it is, we should do it, delegate it, or defer it.  Deferring it means determining the next action and scheduling to do it later.  If not, we should delete it or set aside for reference (to possibly use later).

By being decisive and touching each item once, we clear our mental decks.

Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero” really helped me process my email.  You’ll notice he based a lot of his principles on David Allen’s Getting to Done. He’s a bit of a smart-ass but I do think his advice is sound.

3. Prioritize & Plan – “First Things First”

This habit is so important that I wrote a separate post for it.  We need to determine our most important tasks (MITs) for each day and get them done as soon as possible.  I try to have no more than 3 MITs per day.  This is my equivalent to a “to do list.”

I’ve found that long lists distract and overwhelm.  Having a 3 item (maximum!) list simplifies things and keeps me focused.

4. Do – “Do One Thing at a Time”

Naturally, this is the hardest habit to master: getting the work done.  Some techniques that have helped me get into the zone are attention dashes, setting time limits and creating environments conducive to singular focus (i.e. no internet, working outside home).  I’ve written a series of posts on managing attention and energy here.

5. Review – “See the Big Picture”

David Allen suggests reviewing your goals, lists and calendar weekly.  This is a Quadrant II task that I try to do on a weekly basis, or at the very least, once per month.

My review involves asking the following questions:

–  Did I accomplish my MITs?
–  Who did I spend time with? (I’ve realized who I spend time with massively affects my outlook and happiness)
–  What 20% of sources led to 80% of my desired outcomes and happiness? Do more of these.
–  What 20% of sources led to 80% of undesired outcomes and unhappiness? Do less of these.
–  What are your upcoming MITs?

Nevertheless, stepping back from the day-to-day and reviewing is critical for seeing the big picture and staying on track.

I encourage you all to read Getting to Done and Zen to Done and reflect on how you can improve how you manage your workflow.

What system(s) do you use to stay organized?  Please share below.

Reading List:

David Allen, Getting to Done
Leo Babuta, Zen to Done
Merlin Mann, Inbox Zero

Do First Things First

“Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.”

– Peter Drucker

We all know we need to prioritize to be effective.  Yet if you’re like me, you still end up wasting obscene amounts of time on unproductive activities.  These frameworks have helped me stay focused on my most important tasks.

1. Do an 80/20 analysis.  Based on the work of Wilfred Pareto, an Italian economist, who found that 80% of wealth is produced by 20% of the population, this 80% output / 20% input distribution has been proven to coincide with other social, scientific and geophysical phenomena.  What 20% of sources are resulting in 80% of your desired outcomes and happiness?   Variants of this question that might be more useful to you:

If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?

If you had a heart attack and had to work 2 hours per day what would you do?

2. Prioritize your important, non-urgent activities.  Categorize your to-do list into 4 quadrants:

Quadrant 1. Urgent, Important
Quadrant 2. Non-urgent, Important
Quadrant 3. Urgent, Not important
Quadrant 4. Non-urgent, Non-important

Urgent tasks are visible, press on us, insist on us.  Important tasks deal with results, high priority goals, our mission and values.

To be effective we need to take care of Quadrant 1 tasks but then determinedly spend time in Quadrant 2, or on non-urgent, important projects.  By prioritizing Quadrant 2, we proactively pursue mission critical projects.   As a result, we’ll spend less time in Quadrant I putting out fires and reacting to problems.  Are you writing the script (Quadrant 2) or are you living someone else’s (Quadrant 1,3,4)?  If you have trouble determining your Quadrant 2 tasks, ask yourself “If you were to do one thing that you know would have enormous positive effects on the results, what would it be?”   If you feel stuck in Quadrant 1 or 3 (urgent activities), ask “What can I do to prevent this activity from recurring or from it having such urgency?”

3. Decide what you’re not going to do; your “not to do list” is just as important as your “to do list.” To use the above example, this would mean eliminating Quadrant 3 & 4 activities, or at the very least, making sure they take up very little of our time.  This also means identifying the 2-3 crutch activities you use to feel productive, and not mistaking them for Quadrant 2 activities. For me, these activities are reading small business blogs / books and checking email.  I try to use these activities as rewards for accomplishing my most important tasks of the day.

4. Finally, as a mindset, focus on opportunity, the future, and your biggest goals when prioritizing work.  This puts us into a Quadrant 2 mindset, and keeps us focused on the 20% of work that will yield the most results.  Focusing on problems, the past and busywork leaves us at the mercy of time and events.  As Peter Drucker eloquently puts it: “Effective people feed opportunities and starve problems.”

I hope these frameworks keep you focused on your highest priorities.  I use them every day to identify my 1-2 most important tasks (MITs) for the day.  Nevertheless, it’s still a struggle for me, because I am not a planner by nature.  But I’ve found that when I do first things first I feel proactive, big picture and driven to produce.  And when I feel the opposite – drifting, reactive, small, insignificant – I know I’m not prioritizing my work correctly.

Reading List:

Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive (Chp 5)
Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Habit 3)
Timothy Ferriss, The 4 Hour Workweek (Chp 5)

 

Build On Your Strengths & Interests

“The effective executive looks upon people including himself as an opportunity. He knows that only strength produces results. Weakness only produces headaches – and the absence of weakness produces nothing.  He knows moreover, that the standard of any human group is set by the performance of the leaders.  And he, therefore, never allows leadership performance to be based on anything but true strength.”

– Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

On Strengths

We achieve results by building on our strengths and the strengths of others, not by overcoming weaknesses. Similarly, we do our best work when we’re intrinsically interested in the task at hand, not because of external sticks and carrots. More on this second point in a bit.

Think of any incredible team, in movies, sports, business, or from your own personal experience. They succeed because each team member brings unique strengths that are then made productive. Ocean’s 11. X-men. Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet or “team of rivals.” The Lakers (at least in their championship years). Great teams are assembled based on complementary strengths.  No one tried to turn Shaquille O’Neal into a 3-point shooter – although his skills certainly needed work.

The insight here is that it is better to change your situation than to change yourself. Recognizing your strengths & interests and going where they are rewarded is the most effective way to get results.

As real estate investor and author John Reed says, “Don’t be a weed.”  Go where you strengths are appreciated and recognized.

On Interests

Not everyone will agree with me but I do think entrepreneurs need to be passionate about the customers they are helping (market) and work they are doing (role).  Why?  Anecdotally, I’ve asked every boss I’ve had what determines success as an entrepreneur and they all have said “tenaciousness.”  My observation of successful entrepreneurs I know personally is that they are “forces of nature.”  Surely, money is a motivating factor, but they live and breathe their business; they love doing what they do.  If it’s only money, fame or power that motivates you and not “love for the game,” I don’t know how you can sustain the effort necessary for long-term success.

Dan Pink has also documented this in his book Drive.  Many tests have shown that for simple and straightforward tasks, carrot and sticks work (i.e. money). But once tasks require conceptual, creative thinking, those motivators demonstrably don’t work.

So how can you pinpoint your strengths and interests?

One way is to list out your strengths and weaknesses or to ask your friends and colleagues for their opinions.  While this is better than doing nothing, I highly recommend taking strengths & interest tests based on data and research instead. Why? For one, it is difficult to articulate what moves you; the tests below give you the vocabulary to express specifically what you’re good at and interested in.  Also, the results will be less affected by your and your colleagues’ biases.

I recommend that you take the Career Leader test, which 96 out of the top 100 global MBA programs use for their students.  The test takes an hour and identifies your strongest business career interests, motivations and top career-relevant skills. It also prescribes career and organizational culture-matches that can help you look for your most effective roles and work environment.  It costs $95 USD but you can get your money back if you’re not satisfied.

I have found The Keirsey Temperament Sorter instructive to learning about my worldview. I see this as more of tool to let you know where your biases and blind spots are.  For example under the test I am classified as an Idealist, either as a “Teacher” or “Champion.”   This helped me realize my dominant and non-dominant modes of communicating (abstract) and acting (cooperative), which will be extremely helpful when I am looking for partners and employees.

A similar test is the Strong Interest Inventory, which identifies your personality type as Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional. The idea behind this test is that “birds of a feather flock together.”  So I would be most compatible working in a Social environment, but also compatible with working in Enterprising or Artistic environments which are the two corners adjacent to my main personality type (very true).

The 6 Different Personality Types (Holland’s Hexagon):


One other alternative is the Strengths Finder Test, popularized by the book of the same name, which is based on over 30 years of Gallup research on employee engagement.  You can get a free version of the test here and see the 34 distinct attributes here.  (I learned my five major themes were positivity, significance, developer, woo, and competition, which is pretty spot on).

What are your strengths and interests and how can you build them into your business?

Reading List:

Gallup summarizes its findings on Strengths-Based Development
Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive
Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What  Motivates Us
Richard Bolles, What Color is Your Parachute?

Achieving Flow

“To do two things at once – is to do neither.”

– Roman Philosopher Publilius Syrus

We know our BPTs.  We schedule rest and recovery into our work week to give us finishing lines to strive for.  And we’ve started implementing positive energy rituals to maximize the quantity, quality, focus and force of our energy.

Next up: how can we enter the zone during our work day?  How can we achieve that blissful feeling of focused attention when concentration deepens and we lose track of time and ourselves?  When we’re less concerned with the result and simply enjoying the task at hand?

According to Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the key conditions for flow are:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenge and his or her own perceived skills.  In other words, one must have confidence that he or she is capable to the task at hand.
  3. The task must have clear and immediate feedback, which allows the person to negotiate changing demands and adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.

 

When was the last time you entered the flow state?

Chances are you met the three conditions above.  You had a good idea of the purpose and boundaries of the task.  You also knew what success looked like (#1).  Accomplishment of the task was just beyond your reach (#2).  And you weren’t working in a bubble – it was easy to track your results and progress (#3).

I realized that many of my flow experiences came when playing sports, video games, or solving puzzles – all games!  We need to make our work more game-like to give us the best chance of entering the zone.

One way is to schedule our work day into “ultradian sprints” of 50-80 minutes, which roughly match our bodies’ natural ultradian rhythms during sleep.  Specifically, this means sorting our day into tasks that individually or in combination would take 50-80 minutes of work and then taking 10-20 minutes off between “sprints” to recover.

Scheduling such blocks accomplishes a number of things.  First, it makes work more of a game by imposing structure, challenge, and more immediate feedback to the task at hand.  Second, it forces us to break our tasks into smaller more manageable tasks – the hardest part of achieving flow is getting past the initial inertia and scheduling mini-blocks of work helps reduce the threat of work (we often procrastinate because we are perfectionists or we fear failure, and procrastinating gives us temporary relief from this anxiety).  Finally, when you know the end is coming soon, you’re more motivated to stick with the task and avoid multi-tasking (the opposite of flow), which has been shown to impair mental capacity.

If 50 minutes is too long, try the 25 or 10 minute version – known in productivity circles as the “Pomodoro technique” and “attention dash” respectively –  to break the inertia and get focused.

You can also batch similar tasks (i.e. email) together and give yourself a time limit to respond.  You’ll be amazed by how much more you can accomplish by blocking your time and devoting your attention to one task.

Riding Oscillation: How to Build Stress and Recovery into your Work Schedule

“Il dolce far niente”  (Italian for “the sweetness of doing nothing”)

Who conditioned us to believe that working longer and more continuously is the best route to high productivity?

As explained in Managing Energy, not Time, is the Key to High Performance, we are oscillatory beings and therefore need to work stress and recovery into our work schedules.  Energy spent in a linear fashion – though admired in our workaholic culture – is supremely ineffective.

One of the best parts of being an entrepreneur is not having a 9 to 5 work schedule.  On the other hand, this also means work never ends either.  Saturdays could be Tuesdays.

But 9 to 5, Fridays, and limited vacation days all create deadlines that signal stress and recovery.   Entrepreneurs must create similar finishing lines for peak productivity.

In order to maintain peak performance, we must take our time off seriously.  Yes, read it again.  Our time off – and what we do during it – is just as important as our working time. The more limits we set on our work time, the more focused and productive we are. 

Many famous authors have stressed this point in different ways.  Tim Ferriss, in The 4 Hour Work Week, invokes Parkinson’s law as proof that limiting your work time results in more productivity.  Neil Fiore, in the Now Habit, calls this “guilt-free play” and “the unschedule” –  scheduling your play-time before your work time to avoid procrastination.  Leonardo da Vinci, defending his frequent daily naps and daydreaming said, “The greatest geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less.”

When do you get your best ideas?  Michael Gelb, author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, asked thousands of people this question, and most people responded “in the shower,” “resting in bed,” “walking to nature,” or “listening to music” – leisurely activities.  Almost no one replied, “at work.”

I allocate one day during the week – usually Sunday – to not doing any work. Nothing!  I’ve found that I return on Monday mornings eager to work.

The principle of building stress and recovery into your work schedule also applies for longer time frames as well.  Let’s face it: as entrepreneurs, there will be times where we have to work weeks or months on end with little recovery time.  If that’s the case, then we need to give ourselves additional time off – more than normal – when that key project is over.  Think of your energy like a wave – if there’s an up cycle (and it’s higher and/or prolonged), then we need a relatively lower and/or prolonged down cycle.  Training allows us to perform at our peaks with less recovery time.

For now, schedule recovery and fun time into your work week.  Relaxation and play are sacred to peak performance.  Most people are overstressed mentally and emotionally.  Explore ideas and life outside of work.  Take vacations.  Reconnect with friends and family.  Your best ideas – and work – deserve it.

We’ll talk more about scheduling recovery into your work day in the Achieving Flow.

The 4 Dimensions of Energy: Physical, Emotional, Mental and Spiritual

So we’ve figured out our biological prime times (BPTs).  But how can we be fully engaged during those BPTs?  After all, even though I’m a morning person, I’ll waste away some mornings distracted and disengaged.  Why do we give more of ourselves to certain tasks then to others?

According to Dr. Jim Loehr, we have four types of energy that feed off each other:

  • Physical (the quantity of our energy)
  • Emotional (the quality of our energy)
  • Mental (the focus of our energy)
  • Spiritual (the force of our energy)

If any of these dimensions is under-stressed or over-stressed our performance suffers. For example, if we don’t get enough sleep or eat poorly, our energy store is depleted.  If our energy is constantly precipitated by perception of threat, fear or survival, we’ll quickly burn out.  And if we are constantly distracted or feel that our work lacks purpose, well, we know how that turns out… half-a-head or half-a-heart never produces our best work.

The most fundamental source of energy is physical; the most significant is spiritual. 

Loehr proposes that our best energy is pleasant and positive energy – meaning that it flows from the perception of opportunity, adventure and challenge.

What does this mean for each energy dimension?

  • For greatest quantity of energy (physical), it means that our diet, exercise and sleep habits are paramount.
  • For highest quality of energy (emotional), it means experiencing the positive emotions of approach (enjoyment, challenge and opportunity), NOT the negative emotions of avoidance (perception of threat, danger, or fear of survival).
  • For clearest focus of energy (mental), it means bringing the appropriate focus and a realistic optimism to the work at hand.
  • For maximum force of energy (spiritual), it means connection to deeply held values and purpose beyond our self interest.

Loehr points out that most workers are understressed physically and spiritually, and overstressed emotionally and mentally.  In other words, most of us need to be train harder physically (eat, exercise and sleep better) and spiritually (align our work with our deepest values) and make a point to renew (rest!) ourselves emotionally and mentally for peak performance.

As a competitive tennis player, I would be super conscious of when and what I ate before an important match (no more than 2 fistfuls of simple carbohydrates and proteins at least 1.5 hours before the match).  Yet when I joined the corporate world I ate every lunch on impulse.  Why don’t we think the same way about eating for our best work?

What are your top work-related performance barriers and their energy/performance consequences?  Are they physical, emotional, mental or spiritual? What positive energy rituals (based on your deepest values) will support the desired change?

Loehr recommends a Purpose – Truth – Action framework for improving our work performance.  First, start with your personal and career vision (purpose).  Second, list out your performance barriers and their energy consequences (truth).  Finally, write the positive energy rituals you’ll use to improve your performance and track your progress (action).

Below you can find a list of common performance barriers and deepest values to help you with this exercise.

Common Performance Barriers

Low Energy
Impatience
Defensiveness
Negative Attitude
Critical of Others
Low Stress Tolerance
Moody / Irritable
Poor Team Player
Inflexible / Rigid
Unfocused
High Anxiety
Poor Time Management
Lack of Trust in Others
Lack of integrity
Indecisive
Poor Communication Skills
Poor Listening Skills
Lack of Passion
Low Self-Confidence
Lack of Empathy
Overly Dependent
Poor Work-Life Balance
Negative / Pessimistic Thinking

Deepest Values Checklist

Authenticity
Balance
Commitment
Compassion
Concern for Others
Courage
Creativity
Empathy
Excellence
Fairness
Faith
Family
Freedom
Friendship
Generosity
Genuineness
Happiness
Harmony
Health
Honesty
Humor
Integrity
Kindness
Knowledge
Loyalty
Openness
Perseverance
Respect for Others
Responsibility
Security
Serenity
Service to Others

Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance

“The ultimate measure of our lives is not how much time we spend on the planet, but rather how much energy we invest in the time we have. “

– Jim Loehr

Today’s business culture is obsessed with time efficiency.  We hear it all the time: “Time is money.”  Our computers, mobile phones, and 24/7 wired culture are all designed to save us time.

But what use is time if our energy is lacking?  If I can free up one more hour, but I’m bored, distracted, or can barely keep my eyes open, what’s the point?  Results don’t come from the hour we set aside, but rather the energy and focus we give to each hour.

Performance is grounded in the skilful management of energy, not time.  

Entrepreneurs seeking peak performance must manage their energy the same way professional athletes do.  They must build rest and recovery into their work schedules and identify the conditions that lead to peak performance.  Like athletes, entrepreneurs must train to maximize the quantity, quality, focus and force of their energy.

Think of your greatest work accomplishments and insights.  Did they come after working continually for days on end or in bursts of focused energy?

Prioritizing how we spend our time is important. But prioritizing how we spend our energy is even more critical.  The first step is figuring out at what time of day we are functioning at our maximum effectiveness.

Sam Carpenter, in his book Work the System, calls this our “Biological Prime Time” or “BPT.”

Think of the times during the day that your energy level peaks and your thinking is most clear.  My peak period is from 9am – 12pm.  I am usually okay from 2-4pm but am pretty much worthless from 4-6pm.  Usually I’ll have one last mini-kick where I can work after dinner from 8-11pm (if I haven’t been drinking!).  The downturns in energy are the easiest to identify – they hit you like a hammer.   Our days and hours each have a cycle of activity and rest (circadian and ultradian rhythms, respectively).

For the population as a whole, a general surge of energy occurs during two periods of the day.  The first is in the morning around 8am and extends 4-5 hours.  The early-to mid-afternoon hours are low key (hence siestas, it’s been proven that humans are generally sleepiest between 3-4pm) and around 5pm energy picks up again. At around 10pm mental sharpness begins to decline…

As entrepreneurs we have the luxury to make our own schedules.  When is your BPT, when focus comes easier?  Zealously guard those hours from distraction and save them for your most important work.

Manage Your Energy and Attention

“Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance.”

– Jim Loehr

This week we attack a topic that is critically important yet rarely – if ever – taught in business schools: managing your energy and attention for peak performance.  Most of my source material comes from Dr. Jim Loehr’s pioneering book, The Power of Full Engagement.  For over 30 years as a sports psychologist, he has worked with world-class athletes to help them perform consistently at the highest levels under intense pressure.  Many of these insights on performance can be applied to our working life.

Is energy management really more important than time management?  When does peak performance occur?  What must we do to achieve it?

Lessons:

1. Managing Energy, NOT Time, is the Key to High Performance

2. The 4 Dimensions of Energy: Physical, Emotional, Mental and Spiritual

3. Riding Oscillation: How to Build Stress and Recovery into your Work Schedule

4. Achieving Flow

Conclusions & Actions:

1. Performance is grounded in the skillful management of energy, not time.

2. Zealously guard your Biological Prime Time (BPT) and save it for your most important work.

3. Identify your top work-related performance barriers.  What positive energy rituals (habits) – grounded in your deepest values – can help you improve your performance?

4. Our time off – and what we do during it – is just as important as our working time.  Scheduling and guarding our recovery time is crucial to peak performance.

5. Schedule your work day into “ultradian sprints” of 50-80 minutes, with recovery periods of 10-20 minutes.

6. The hardest part of achieving flow is starting.  Use attention dashes – shorter sprints of 10-25 minutes – to overcome the initial inertia of getting into the zone.

Reading List:

Dr. James Loehr, The Power of Full Engagement
Neil Fiore, The Now Habit
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What  Motivates Us
Josh Kaufman, The Personal MBA

Web:

Paul Graham, Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule