Category: Productivity

Action Is the Best Antidote

 

Excuses, excuses! Sometimes the thoughts in our head can be our own worst enemy, especially when those thoughts are excuses.

This happens to everyone: You’ve set a goal of some sort and early on you’ve made good progress toward it. But two or three weeks in, as your motivation begins to wane a bit, excuses start popping up here and there. At first, you fight these barriers to success, pushing them out of your mind. Then a little more time goes by and one day you latch on to one of them. It starts simply, as just a thought, maybe something like:

“I know I should go to the gym after work, but I really need to get some holiday shopping done.”

At that precise moment, you have the power to make an easy choice between two options. You can either decide to go to the gym or to go shopping after work. If you don’t stop right then and there and make a firm commitment to that decision, then something like this might follow: “If I do go shopping, I can walk quickly through the mall and burn a few calories that way. I could even take the stairs instead of the escalator. I’ll probably burn more calories shopping for an hour than I would during my 30-minute workout at the gym.”

Do you see what just happened there? You created a bunch of justifications for your original excuse. At this point you could still change your mind and honor your workout, but you’ve made that outcome much less likely.

As I explain in my weight loss book, Reboot Your Body:

Your success in this effort will be inversely proportionate
to the number of excuses you make.

Fortunately, breaking out of the habit of excuse making is actually pretty easy. The best antidote for it is action of any kind. Get up and go for a walk; do a few chair stretches; open a blank document and get to work on something – whatever you do doesn’t even have to be related to the decision you’re pondering. The act of simply doing something will disrupt that cascading excuse-thought pattern and give you the mental space to make a conscious decision. While it can’t guarantee that you’ll choose the gym over the mall, it will put those two options back on equal ground.

Do Less. Accomplish More.

Last week I asked you to be a silent observer in your own life and determine how often you completed tasks or participated in conversations without giving them your full attention. I challenged you to quit bragplaining – glorifying how busy you are all the time – and to stop and think about what it really means to habitually have more on your plate than you can effectively deal with. This was meant to be a gentle prod to help you start removing yourself from the Cult of Busy. Out of politeness, I did not suggest that (perhaps) having so much to do all the time is less a marker of accomplishment than a sign of disorganization or failure to prioritize.

If you want a life filled with great accomplishments, strong relationships and low levels of anxiety, then you need implement only one strategy: Do Less. Accomplish More.

Doesn’t that sound great?! “Too good to be true,”  you’re probably thinking, but put another way, it might read, “Be productive, not busy.” It’s a goal-setting and time-management strategy that the world’s most successful people have been employing for centuries, and it’s actually quite simple. The whole philosophy can be boiled down to three steps:

1. Get Your Priorities Straight
2. Make Your Actions Match Your Words
3. Evaluate Your Performance

Priorities

In order for this to work, you have to start with the assumption that it is impossible to do many things exceptionally well all at once. Therefore, you can either do many things marginally well, or you can focus your time and energy on only a few things. No one wants to be mediocre, so you’ve got to whittle your priorities down to just a few things. I personally use the Rule of 3 when setting goals and managing tasks: I choose the three areas of my life that I want to focus on most over the next several months (Family, Health, Career, for example), then I set three goals for each of those areas, and every day I write down between one and three tasks or events that are absolutely essential for moving me toward my goal in each area. That leaves me with a very directive list of priority tasks that I will accomplish every day and my motivation to stick to that list is very high because my success is directly tied to the tasks on it.

Follow Through

Knowing what you should be focusing your time and energy on is a great first step, but it won’t get you far unless your actions match the words on paper. The best way I’ve found to do this is to hold myself to two rules every single day:

Rule #1 Your priority tasks need to be the first thing you work on. Putting them off until later exponentially ups the likelihood that they won’t get done at all. This might mean waking up super early on some days, so that you can get those tasks done before you start going to meetings or whatever else you have cluttering up your day.

Rule #2 You need to spend most of your time on your priority tasks. If you allow your days to continue getting cluttered up by the nonessential, then your priority tasks will continue to slide and you won’t achieve your goals. There are many skills and traits you may need to master in order to effectively do this, but chief among them is learning to say no. Stop saying yes to everything everyone asks of you. This might come as a shock to your friends, family, coworkers and supervisors at first, but if you employ a little diplomacy and explain why, they should understand that a) this is something you need to do for yourself, and b) the quality of your work/health/relationships will improve because of it.

Evaluate

Once you’ve set your priorities and gotten into the habit of asking yourself those two questions every day, you’ll need to evaluate your progress very frequently. Check in with yourself at short intervals throughout the day and decide whether the thing you’re doing right now is in line with your priorities and moving you closer toward your goals, or just checking boxes and crossing things off of some random to-do list. You may want to set reminders or alerts for the first few days, in order to prompt you to bring your awareness to your actions.

It’s also a good idea to check in at the end of each day and ask yourself two questions: “Did I work on my priority tasks first today?” and, “Did I spend the bulk of my time on those things today?” Then give yourself a grade and make plans for how you can do a little better tomorrow.

By following these guidelines you can start accomplishing the things you want to in life, rather than just keeping busy.

Stop Bragplaining and Quit the Cult of Busy

I'm so busy!
What was I doing again?

“Hi, (your name)! How are you?”

“Ugh, busy!”

Does this sound familiar? Would you say that your life is absolutely flooded with things you have to do? Do you spend your days hurrying from task to task and appointment to appointment without ever really getting your to-do list done?

If so, how does that make you feel? Stressed? Tired? Anxious? Overwhelmed? Probably yes to all of those, but isn’t there a tiny part of you that also feels a little bit proud? From time to time, we’re all guilty of “bragplaining” (bragging while complaining) about how busy our lives are, and it’s easy to see why. In today’s society, being busy is a symbol of accomplishment, success, and importance. It’s become a kind of competition, the rules of which are not stated, but nevertheless, are universally understood. The assumption is that if you aren’t always busy then you must not have that much going on, that perhaps you’re missing out on life. In fact, this is a lie and the exact opposite is true.

There is a difference between being busy and getting things done.

The truth is that multitasking is a myth and a busy brain functions at a diminished capacity. When we stretch our energy and attention across so many things over the course of a day, it can’t help but wear thin. We give everything we do the barest amount of attention, so we don’t do anything truly well. As a result, our productivity and performance across all tasks are lower than they could be. Our work suffers, but more importantly, so do our relationships. How often do you find yourself thinking about something else completely right while someone is talking to you? When is the last time you turned your attention fully toward your child or spouse? Busy-ness diminishes our experience of life on the whole: when we don’t pause to look around and take in what’s happening right here and now, we never truly engage; we are hurried observers rather than active participants in our own lives.

The good news is that something can be done about this. We have more control over our daily lives than we think we do. For the next week, I ask you to just observe yourself. Notice what the course of your days are like, how you feel, how you interact with others. Note how often you feel rushed, anxious, impatient. See whether you ever slow down and concentrate on just one thing, right in that moment.

Then check back here next week for tips on how you can start to change some of those habits and escape the cult of busy.

Four Email Rules that Will Restore Your Sanity and Boost Productivity

Is your email inbox driving you crazy? Does it seem like you can never keep up, no matter how much time you spend sifting through messages every day? What’s worse, if you’re like most people, you probably have multiple email accounts scattered across virtual space, all silently nagging you for attention. How much of your time do you spend dealing with email every day? Fifteen minutes? A hour? Two hours? Do you think that reading and answering email is a major part of your job? Does that really constitute productive work?

You can easily track exactly how much time you spend on email by downloading a free productivity tracker like Rescue Time or Toggl, or any number of apps for mobile devices. Go ahead, track yourself for a week and see how much of your productive time is being sucked up by email.

Once you’ve taken the first step and admitted that you have a problem, it’s time to do something about it. You’ll have to get tough on yourself and on those you’ve been enabling with your constant, lightning-quick responses. You and they have been caught in a cycle of non-work: You’re talking about work, you’re planning work, you’re evaluating the work you’ve done, but you’re not working. So, hey, why not try something new? Break that cycle and get some actual work done. Put these four rules into place and follow them religiously for one week. I bet you’ll be amazed by the results.

 

Email Inbox
Streamline All Emails Into One Account

You know what, you don’t need a separate email address for every business or web page you own or manage. You don’t need an “info” account and a separate one with your name before the @. You don’t need a Gmail account and a Hotmail account and a Mac mail account. You think you do – you are arguing with me right now, telling me why you think you do – but you simply don’t. You need one respectable, adult-sounding email address that simply identifies you as you, because, after all, it’s you on the receiving end of all of those emails, right? So get rid of all of your different email addresses.

I have one exception to this rule, and that is for my “spam” email account. This is the address I enter on web sites where I want a free download or whatever, but I don’t want to have to look at the two hundred follow-up emails I’ll get where they try to sell me something. I “check” that account twice each month, essentially just to empty it out.

Of course, if you work at a company that requires you to have an email address on their system, that’s different. But you should only have one of those accounts, and in that case, that’s the only email you should be checking at work (in other words, no personal email at work).

If  you currently have six different accounts for your many and varied roles in life, this will be a tough step. At the very least, start by forwarding all of your accounts into one, so that you only have to go to one place to check them. But it’s still a good idea to dispose of those accounts over time, because the back-end management (and associated costs) can be significant, if infrequent.

Get Organized

Now that you’ve got hundreds of emails coming into a single location every day, you better set up a tracking and filing system if you ever want to be able to find what you’re looking for again. Luckily, virtually every email system out there makes that very easy to do. Simply create folders with concise names that allow you to file emails where they belong. This way, you can make your inbox a truly useful tool, keeping only those time-sensitive “to-do” messages there where you’re forced to look at them until you’ve dealt with them.

By flagging important messages, you won’t lose track of them, even when they’ve been filed away out of sight. If there’s a meeting or deadline associated with a message, be sure to add it to your calendar or reminders before filing it. Things are already starting to shape up a bit, aren’t they?

Turn Off All Alerts

All. Turn. Them. Off. No dings, badges, banners, whistles, whatever. These are not useful tools for getting work done. They are distractors. They pull you from that important thing you were just about to do by catching your eye or ear and saying, “Hey! Don’t do that important thing – look at me instead!” Everyone take a deep breath. Steel yourself against the coming existential crisis: But what if somebody needs to get in touch with me RIGHT NOW because I’m so incredibly important?! and go into your email settings and turn off all notifications.

Check Your Email Twice Daily

If you think this is absurd, then absolutely no more than three times per day. If you still think this is absurd, then I would submit that the amount of time you spend checking email is the thing that is absurd.

This step will require you to send out an email or to have a conversation with your codependents. You’ll have to let them know that you’ll only be checking your email at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. (or whatever times make the most strategic sense for you) and that if they have something truly important and urgent: 1) They should plan ahead better so they’re not always creating emergencies for others, and 2) They can reach you via telephone or by walking their lazy butt down the hallway to your cubicle. But be nicer than that when you have that conversation with them, because remember that you are breaking up a codependent relationship, so there could be some tears.

Next, you will have to institute a reward/punishment policy for yourself so that you stick to this rule. Put a dollar into a jar every time you check your email outside of the defined times. At the end of the week, give your jar to the person in your company you hate the most. Or rig up an electric shock machine – something serious that will quickly teach you the importance of not checking email more than twice daily. On days when you actually stick to the plan, congratulate yourself by booking a vacation to a tropical island – something serious that will quickly teach you the importance of sticking to the new schedule.

More than anything else, this one rule will send your productivity through the roof. Why? Because every time you open your email application, you spend roughly the same amount of time “working” in that application, regardless of how many emails you have waiting for you in there. If you open it and there are four new messages, you pause and look at each one. Perhaps you open them all – even the one that that contains an ad for fabulous sales on gorgeous camera lenses you’ll never be able to afford. You might even click on that ad, just to look at the lenses on sale, in case you win the lottery before the sale ends. But if you open your email and there are 26 new messages, you very quickly trash the fluff, open the rest and sort them into either “file for later” or “requires immediate action.” And then you get to work on the important ones.

 

Of course, if you have the kind of job where checking email is a happy distraction that helps you fill the hours you’re required to punch on someone else’s time clock, then you’ll probably want to keep your multiple accounts with their banners and badges and whistles. In that case, your inbox is not the issue.

Beat the Afternoon Lull with an Activity Snack

ActivitySnack It’s 3:00 in the afternoon. You feel your energy start to go and that mental fog setting in. If you’re hungry, you grab a snack – hopefully a healthy one. But if that’s not enough, is your next move to load up on caffeine? Take a power nap? Try to push through with your energy and motivation running on fumes? Or do you just give up and pack it in early, leaving tasks undone and adding to tomorrow’s workload?

Don’t do those things! There’s a simple tip you can follow to recharge your batteries and get you going again: Have an activity snack!

Just like an edible snack, an activity snack is a mini-version of the real thing, in this case, physical activity. The great thing about an activity snack is you don’t need much time at all – 30 seconds could be enough, you don’t need any special clothing or equipment, and you don’t even need to worry about getting sweaty since you won’t be doing anything very strenuous for very long.

The type of activity you do during your snacks is really only limited by your imagination. If you’re in your office and only have a few seconds, doing a few chair squats will work: stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down, done! Or you could do a 30-second plank. You could walk briskly down the hall and back a few times, or better yet, get outside and walk around the block once. If you’re feeling tired and stressed, try this: stand facing a window (hopefully one with the sun shining into it) and close your eyes. Raise your arms overhead in Mountain Pose and take five breaths, making each breath a little slower and deeper than the last. Now tap the crown of your head lightly with your index fingers, alternating hands for a total of 20 taps. Open your eyes. Lift one foot and balance on the other for 15 seconds, switch sides and repeat. How do you feel?

Any of those options are good, but my favorite activity snacks, by far, are active games. A couple of months ago, I went online and ordered a child’s paddle ball, a set of jacks (you remember those, right?), and this weird uneven ball that goes in crazy directions when you bounce it off the floor. I already happened to have a package of three tennis balls in the closet, so I also started trying to learn how to juggle. I was terrible at first! In fact, I plan to write another post soon about my juggling experience and I will show you the videos of me trying to juggle a couple of months ago, and now, and you’ll be amazed at my progress. Most importantly, learning to juggle was fun! I felt like a kid again, challenging myself to do something new. As I got a little better day by day, it became exhilarating. Not only that, but it’s actually a pretty good workout, especially at first, when you’re dropping and chasing balls all the time.

If you can find an activity that’s fun and mentally stimulating as well as physically challenging, doing it for even just 60 seconds will give your brain a dose of chemicals that far exceeds anything caffeine or sugar can do for you. You’ll feel immediately refreshed and ready to get back to work.

If you think of any other activity snacks I haven’t mentioned here, give them a try and share with the rest of us, either in the comments below, or on my Facebook page. Have fun!

Aligning Actions with Values

Zeb Yesterday, my old dog, Zeb, had a bad day. He’s 16 years old and he’s had two cancer surgeries, so I know that he and I don’t have much more time left together. It makes me sad, but it also makes me realize that I need to take advantage of every moment we do have. Recently, this sentiment has been echoed by a friend whose mother is battling Alzheimer’s disease, and last night, several famous movie stars (Oscar winners) reminded us all to call those we love and tell them so – right now. It all got me thinking about what’s really important in my life.

The past year has been an exciting and tumultuous time for me, professionally, with my writing career taking off and my book coming out in a few months. The whole endeavor has been sucking up a lot of my time, and most of my mental energy, but I realized today that it’s not what is most important to me. It’s not even second most important to me. But it gets a lot of my time and attention, and I would say it’s the source of most of my worry and stress.

Then I thought about some other stuff that takes up a lot of my time and attention – email, social media, whatever I can find to stream on Netflix. And these things don’t even make it onto the list of what’s important to me, never mind about being near the top. So do I care about most? I actually had to sit down and think about it for a few minutes.

Relationships – that’s the thing that I value most. Interacting with the people I love; being a good wife, daughter, sibling, friend, neighbor; giving love and compassion and assistance to, and receiving all of those things back from, others. This is what I would not be willing to live without. I’m sure many of you feel the same way. So why do we know that and say that, but act differently? Why don’t I devote most of my time and energy to my relationships? Why are social interactions and family functions and dates with my spouse scheduled in last – around everything else? Why do I sometimes feel jealous of my time, like helping others is an infringement? In truth, I should treasure these opportunities to connect more deeply with others. The rest of my life should be penciled in after these things, right?

My health is the next most important thing to me, because without it, it’s tough or even impossible to participate fully in those relationships and to do good, important work. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, eliminating needless stress and learning to manage the stress I can’t avoid – these are the things I should be spending the next biggest chunk of time on.

I would say that my career is the next most important thing, because at this point in my life, I’m doing something that helps others. Through my coaching and writing, I’m able to teach people things they didn’t know, or remind them of things they knew but forgot, and those things can enrich their lives. When I stray very far from that guiding principle, my career becomes less satisfying to me and begins to founder. I feel rudderless and wonder what it’s all for, and with good reason.

Finally, learning and self improvement are important to me. Unless I continue to grow as a person, I can’t be of much use to others. Embracing new experiences, finding the courage to try new things, and having the discipline to dedicate the time to study and practice are traits I need to nurture more.

Those are my values. Defining them was the first step, now it’s time to ensure that my day-to-day actions support them.

What are your values? And do your actions bear them out?