Maybe it’s Not the To Do List

I’ve been thinking about to do lists lately and the plethora of apps and processes that promise to alleviate us of our stress and make our lives so much better.

Many of these tools do help us accomplish those things. But there are also situations where we look at our list, whether it’s in a notebook, on an app or in our head and we still get overwhelmed. There is just too much to do and not enough time. Apparently, the ancient Romans had the same issue!

I’ve been pondering if there is a root cause. Something besides the number of tasks and the time we have. Even the most disciplined people can “fall off the wagon” and need to get back in control. What causes this?

The founder of Ness Labs, Anne-Laure Le Cunff (@anthilemoon) has just begun a YouTube channel and she discusses three types of motivation when it comes to procrastination. One of which I want to discuss here: perceived abilities.

If we look at our to do lists we see a lot of tasks that come within the brief of our job, whether that job is your employment or a more casual (non-KPI’d) role, like being a dad or a friend or a maintenance guy around the house (I have the fix the headlight on my car!).

We can look at the list of tasks and some are relatively easy to do. For me, presenting in public comes relatively easy, simply because I’ve done it so many times and feedback has been good (or, perhaps, polite! ;)). Therefore, if someone asks me to do a presentation, I’m not going to get too anxious, in fact, I’ll probably look forward to it! weird huh?).

In another area of my role, as a change analyst, I’m relatively new to the function and I’m working on an IT project, which is also new to me. I’ve been asked to develop a change plan. Not something I’ve done before. I have been given guidance and a template and plenty of support. I still procrastinate and look at the task, not with dread, but certainly with a little less confidence than giving a presentation. There are so many elements that go into a change plan I don’t really know where to start, or what is enough information and what might be too much.

As I develop my change analyst skills, this will become easier. We grow, even if it’s subconsciously, in the things we repeatedly do.

Therefore, when I suggest the list isn’t the problem, I’m suggesting it might (also) be the skill set required to complete the tasks on the list. Brian Tracy authored the book, “Eat That Frog” to help people get over the toughest task of the day early. My question is, “why is it tough?” Referring back to Anne-Laure‘s* video, she also discusses two other motivational areas: head and heart. She explains it better than I can, so head on over to the video (and subscribe while you’re there).

For many of us, me included, a long list can cause anxiety in and of itself. But then, as you decide which task to tackle first (or second, or third …), you need to be aware of what skills you have to complete the task. And what skills you need. And once you have decided that, what are you going to do about it to become more competent, less anxious and enjoy work more.

Here’s my Plan

My process will be to look at tasks and batch them. As Tim Ferriss* (among others) has written and spoken of time and time again you don’t need to know everything about a topic, you just need to know the top 20-30% of things (Tim refers to speaking Japanese and how many words you really need to learn!) To me this means: what skills do many of these tasks require and what skills do I need to develop.

Touch Typing

I have been procrastinating on touch typing. Why? Even though I am making small progress, I just want to be able to do it now! I start and stop with the practice. I know becoming competent will benefit me, especially as my mind races with thoughts that I cannot get out quick enough.

Learning how to develop a Zettelkasten

Another is developing a Zettelkasten approach to note taking to help me learn more, with more interest and, in the long run, learn quicker.

Both of the above would help me develop change plans better, as one example, and through more effective research and developing ideas.

The list itself, at least for me, isn’t the basic issue. It’s having or developing the skills I need to complete the tasks on the list; whether I am looking at the larger outcome (Change Plan) or breaking it down to smaller tasks.

Coming Up: How Developing the Skills adds to the Time to Complete Tasks

*shameless name dropping! 🙂

Winning

Did you win yesterday? Are you going to win today?

What I mean by “winning” is – was it (will it be) a good day?

Our life is made up of moments. Just like games of football (above) over 90 minutes. Each moment contributes to the final score. The run, the pass, the kick …

The score, though, summarises the minutes and moments of the game.

What happened during the game that resulted in the final score?

How do you develop your “game plan”?

Coaches of sporting teams often talks in terms of “week at a time” or, “not looking past next week”.

Stephen Covey used the weekly planner as his basis for time planning. And weeks are made up of days and days, as we know, are made up of moments.

What moments do you know you’ll have today?

How will you plan for them? Enjoy them? Learn from them?

Learning from them implies reflection. Do you stop long enough to reflect?

How do you reflect? Do you quickly breeze through it, or do you stop, write down your thoughts and ensuing conclusions? And plan again?

I hope you do.

Yellow Button

It all started before 2010. We bought our first PVR (Personal Video Recorder). It was a Topfield.

It also cost $892! 

My wife was a little stunned, a little angry and wondered what on earth I had done. I had tried explain to her what a PVR was and the benefits of owning one would bring.

And so, we had our PVR …

Once we had it set up, my wife discovered the yellow button. On our remote control the yellow button was the 30-second skip ahead function. Guess how long most adverts are?

By recording a show on free-to-air TV we could skip through the ads! We used it so often that, literally, 12 months later, we’d accidentally watch an ad and say, “so that’s what that’s about!” It also rescued watching time considerably! Do you realise how many ads there are sometimes duding commercial television? We’d count them sometimes, nine was our record. Nine times 30 seconds (4.5 minutes), 3 or 4 times during a show!

The yellow button saved us time and some frustration.

Since then we’ve referred to anything we do that brings a benefit as our “yellow button”.

We can make our lives a little easier even though there might be an upfront cost – changing routines, eating differently, getting more exercise, meditating, reading positive books, getting off Facebook!

As you make one change, other changes can become easier, the cost to change reduces.

What has been your “yellow button”?

What change did you invest in that made a significant, positive impact?

Facile

Definition: Easily accomplished (Latin, French origins)

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” – Einstein

When I started training to be a facilitator, I learnt where the word facilitator came from – facile. To help make things easy to accomplish.

That was it, my job was to maker things easier for others to their jobs well.

People like James Clear in his book Atomic Habits also promotes making things easier when you are trying to take on new routines.

Cal Newport in his book Deep Work is advocating for setting up guidelines to make deep work easier.

Why would we try to make it hard for ourselves?

We should be doing what we can to make our lives and those we work with easier or simpler to help them and us achieve our goals.

This starts at home and continues into the work itself.

At home it begins with things like ensuring we get the best possible sleep, eating heathy meals (which can vary between individuals), getting enough sunlight and exercise. Simple things in themselves but each can affect our happiness and performance, particularly when added together.

If we are not happy, our energy and focus suffers, which will in turn affect our work. And as we get to work, how do we structure our days so we can be the best we can be?

It can be having specific routines and clear expectations. This will allow you and your direct reports to know exactly what is required, when and how.

There is a peace of mind and clarity in knowing what to do and how to do it.

For example, every day, before I get to the office I have listed my 3 Most Important Things (MITs) . They are my focus for the day – outside of my routine tasks. My day will already be busy so by having these priorities I can say no to casual, generally less important requests and focus on daily responsibilities and my 3 MITs.

I think of it like this: at the end of each day I am going to mentally reflect on how I went, even just casually. Was it a good day or a bad day? And then, what caused it to be good or bad? What was in my control and what was not?

If I allow the tasks of the day to jumble up and cause chaos that is my responsibility alone. Yes, there will be days where the “proverbial really hits the fan” and I need to throw my plans out, but over 221* working days in a year, most of those days I will be in relative control.

I will be in control because I have plans, routines and execution strategies to help me focus and keep things simple. I don’t need any further friction.

I do these things to make my life easier. Work, sometimes, is not easy but I don’t have it make it harder than it needs to be either.

 


*221 working days is determined as follows (in Australia):

  • 365 days in a year
  • – 104 days are 2 day weekends
  • – 20 days are annual leave (if taken)
  • – 10 days are public holidays
  • – 10 days are sick leave (if taken)

 

Models

“All models are wrong, some are useful”

George E.P. Box

In a period of ambiguity, this quote seems more and more appropriate. People are trying to make sense of the COVID-19 world and models can help, even if they are wrong!

Models, in this context, are structures that help us make sense of situations. It can help us normalise things we may not be used to. People are generally comfortable with familiarity.

I come from a learning & development background and in that industry there are more “models” and frameworks than you can poke a stick at. Which isn’t surprising as the profession is duty bound to make sense out of many changing circumstances and people’s resistance to change. Many of these models are being challenged lately. Maybe they always have been and social media only amplifies the noise.

Myers-Briggs (MBTI), DiSC, HS LSI, learning styles. The list goes on.

I’m okay that they are wrong or misleading or unscientific. Because I don’t think any of the models are 100% true 100% of the time.

But they can be useful.

Just like story telling can be useful, or using analogies. The story, or analogy, is not the specific truth but is an attempt to make sense of a situation to aid the listener in understanding it from their perspective.

If a model is being presented as scientifically true when it isn’t, it needs to be called out. But I do see people completely dismissing any value that might be gained from such models. Which is just as simplistic. Is there no value in the model?

Recently, someone commented on an article they were enjoying until the writer used the term “learning styles”. They just stopped reading from that point! Is it possible to look past the phrase and continue to enjoy the point the article was trying to make?

I agree with Mr Box. All models are wrong. But we can learn from them, therefore they are, or can be, useful.

I was taught to take everything with a pinch of salt. Results of any assessment are a “guideline” rather than a rule.

As a bad example, when I was learning about MBTI (this link refers to criticisms of the model), one of my colleagues exclaimed to another “That’s a typical INTJ comment!” pigeon-holing the individual immediately! For me, that was the best learning in how not to apply a model! Maybe a better response might have been “that’s an interesting perspective, could you elaborate?”

Perhaps we could be a bit more curious about styles: learning, thinking, behavioural or otherwise. The INTJ is a label but it’s just that – a label. It’s not the whole story.

Let’s look at an analogy: “tags”.

One way to allocate information in a database like Evernote is to “tag” a document. A tag is a word or term that denotes a piece of information the document refers to.

For example, a tag of “rice” might be assigned to a cooking dish that requires rice or is heavily rice based. If you searched for the tag “rice” in Evernote a range of items where “rice” is significant will come up. It helps in searching for rice dishes rather than scrolling through every entry!

But the tag is not the dish.

The tag is an indicator and you want to know more, dig in, be curious about what context the tag makes.

Similarly, the label/tag “INTJ” is not the person. It may prove useful as a starting point which may also demand that you enquire, be curious and/or dig in to know more about the individual.

MBTI talks about preferences, not absolutes.

Learning styles talks about Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic learning modes. But please don’t create a course or event solely based on one mode. (Note there is a degree of critique on Learning Styles but also note 58% agreed that students “learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style .”) (*DTTBOWTB)

DiSC talks about behavioural styles. Dominant, iNfluence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness. These are aspects of observable behaviour. It can be useful. Imagine a “High I” talking incessantly over a customer they are trying to sell to. Not ideal. You can address that and see if it is a dominant behaviour.

This is not a treatise on the defence of models. Far from it. You will see there are many critiques. Some may argue that if we can’t rely on them then what value are they?

The value, as I see it, is a starting point for conversations, for considering how we move forward in relationships. Putting things within a loosely held construct. And a willingness to flex when necessary as well as develop a sound knowledge of those we interact with.

Not everyone will act according to their preferred style all the time.

Love your models, use them carefully but also be curious.

(DTTBOWTB: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!)

Coach

If you don’t have a personal coach or someone in your corner helping you to achieve your goals, are you holding yourself back?

Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Big Short) has a podcast out called Against the Rules. In its second season, it focuses on the rise of coaches and coaching.

Coaching has been around for years (centuries if you count apprenticeships and the like). However, the occupation of coaching is relatively new in the modern world and the scope of coaching is broadening.

As an example, Michael describes the role of coaches assisting students to develop strategies and behaviours to obtain entry into their preferred University (Yale, Harvard etc.). These coaches have knowledge, skills and insights the individual doesn’t realise exist – and this eliminates them from entry. While others, having this information, are basically coached into University. Here’s the thing, it’s not necessarily the best candidates who gain entry!

If you don’t know a tool, or asset, exists, you can’t take advantage of it. You cannot know what you don’t know.

A good coach gives an individual the advantage over those who don’t. They provide the specific input an individual needs to progress and feedback on their performance. A good coach has the ability to identify and communicate areas of strength to build on and areas to develop as well as areas not to focus on.

Does it Matter that Much?

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” “I don’t much care where –” “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.” 

Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

If you have no goal, then, perhaps a coach is not necessary. If you have a goal but it is not compelling, then, again, a coach is probably not necessary. However, if you have a goal you must achieve (which is totally your decision), I would estimate having a coach is the best thing you can possibly do.

Of course, if you decide not to engage someone for feedback and encouragement, there are options. You can get tuition and guidance from reading books, watching videos, interacting with peers, in person and online. This input is highly valuable and allows you to discover new and varied ways of accomplishing a specific task or project.

But there is a caution which I gained from personal experience. 

I played golf daily (literally) for many years. I “prided” myself on having never had a formal lesson. I read all the books and subscribed to golfing magazines, I watched videos, played alongside my peers and entered tournaments. And yet I also never rose to any great heights, achieving a best handicap of 12 when the average male handicap was 14 – right in the middle of the good old bell curve!

I decided to get lessons.

My coach clearly stated that, “You cannot get feedback from a magazine or a video and just because the ball went straight it doesn’t mean you can repeat that. You need qualified feedback.”

Watching, reading and discussing form, scores and style are good but at some stage, if you really want to improve, you need feedback on what you are doing. My short game improved considerably!

Do I Really Need a Coach?

No, no-one needs a coach in the sense of they have to have one. But what are you missing that a coach may identify? It may be a simple issue to address, it may be more complex. The real question is what is the upside of having a coach? What will you become as a result of having a positive, constructive voice in your corner?

I think everyone benefits from a coach, formal or informal. Just the conversation itself has the power to encourage, motivate and enthuse an individual to try something new or different. And that can be enough to gather some momentum and accelerate you towards your goals.

If you need further proof of the need for a coach consider people like Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep, Roger Federer, amateur and professional sporting teams and many executives all have some form of coach.

What is interesting is that those at the “top of their game” want to have a coach. They constantly want to get better. It’s not up for debate. So does this mean the gap between the top and middle gets wider? More than likely, yes. 

Look at the common workplace these days. Many organisations are creating roles for coaches. Sometimes this part of a leadership role. Sometimes it’s an additional resource. That’s how important many believe having a coach to be.

Lastly, I would suggest we all have a coach of some sort if we count the ongoing conversations we have in our head. That coach, based on evidence, has a predisposition to be slightly negative in its views. Constantly telling us why we can’t do something or how our attempt was below par. Now, imagine if you had a physical coach like that, coaching from the sidelines as you attempted your best. 

We’d fire them straight away.

Find someone who will encourage you, challenge you and help you keep going in the face of adversity to help you reach the goals theatre important to you.

My Marathon “Coach”

I ran a marathon in June 2017. It wasn’t my best marathon. I hadn’t trained well. Since the half way mark (21.1km) I had been walking and jogging alternately. I was gassed. My shoulder hurt (don’t ask me why, I was running on my feet!) You can see me slowing down in the graph below: slower pace, lower heart rate.

With 2km to go a runner passed me and stated: “Come on, no more walking.” I said I couldn’t. I was done. She tersely warned me: “No! You’re not! Let’s go!” I started to jog with her. I not only jogged the last 2km, my pace was back at a decent level. We jogged the last 2 km, picking up other “lost souls” along the way.

Last 2km showing an increase in pace. Last km (of 42) almost back to pace at the beginning! Thanks “coach!” 🙂

On Being Productive

I’m not sure when the “self help” industry started and I’m not sure why it started when it did.

Today it’s easy to see why. People are overrun with tasks, deadlines and responsibilities. Not all of which are useful. Many of which could be dropped and no-one would notice.

My productivity journey began in 1996.

I’d just been appointed Human Resources and Sales Manager for a newly developed business unit in a bank. It was termed Direct Banking, where people would call in to have their home loans assessed over the phone. All common place today but back then, major change.

It was very exciting as we worked long hours, changing systems and processes on the go to make sure we kept up with demand and expectations. The adrenalin and achievement was like a drug. We couldn’t wait to get back to it each day.

My manager, a very crusty Welshman who demanded a lot, noticed I was a little chaotic in the midst of all this. He suggested I stop in at McDonalds first thing every day and plan my day.

“What I was going to do? What I was going to achieve?” That was it, nothing more.

I agreed with the idea and so my affair with productivity (and coffee*) commenced.

This small activity made a lot of difference. We had our business plan so referencing that I could easily determine my next actions and explain why if asked.

Three things happened:

  1. The day became a lot clearer and therefore more enjoyable.
  2. My team were also better led because I could give them better guidance and they achieved more.
  3. We began to get ahead of our plans and be ready for the “next thing” – we looked forward to the “next thing”.

Obvious in hindsight perhaps.

But sometimes all we need a small nudge and the world falls into place.

What I was doing at McDonalds was listing my 3 – 5 MITs (Most Important Things). They would be my focus for the day.

They helped me make decisions and guide me throughout the day. If I got distracted, back to the list: “What do I need to accomplish today?”

I then coached others on developing their own MITs.

The term MIT (Most Important Thing/s) is now productivity lore. But it was there all along. The rate of change just gets us bent out of shape sometimes and we can neglect ways a small but powerful activity, either first thing in the morning or last thing at night, can prepare us for the next day.

Q: Do you follow something like this? Do you do something different that is just as effective or more effective?

Let me know.

*Coffee – I’ve transitioned off McDonalds coffee mostly but back then, when it was free re-fills all day, and being on one income, it was a bit of a lifesaver at times. 🙂

On Being a Higher Performer

This one is straight from James Clear‘s email I received last week.

When doing performance reviews (let’s accept for a minute they are a good thing and well executed), staff often ask how they can achieve higher than the average (aka, doing the job).

I have come across a few managers who aren’t prepared to have this conversation. My conclusion is managers are afraid staff will seek ways to achieve what they have said and will be forced to give higher ratings. That’s just … weird!

I think James sums up the higher scales nicely: (italics are my comments):

The 3 Levels of Employees:

Level 1 — You do what you are asked to do. (This is “doing your job.”)

Level 2 — Level 1 + You think ahead and solve problems before they happen. (I don’t think this applies to the immediate job. That would be considered continuous improvement or identifying something that needs to be fixed to do the job properly.)

Level 3 — Level 2 + You proactively look for areas of opportunity and growth in the business, and figure out how to tap into them. (This is organisational or department-wide. Maybe seeing a significant risk to the business and developing a solution.)

If a company is going to have rating scales, companies (i.e. managers) need to be able to have a conversation about the scales and how to achieve them.

Note 1: For the record, if you do conduct Performance Reviews, they really should be just regular conversations summarising what both parties already know.

Note 2: I am trying to improve my writing and was taught (eons ago) that if you have the word “that” near the beginning of a sentence, you can actually delete everything up to and including the “that” and the sentence will still make perfect sense, and likely be more clear.

Here is paragraph 3 (above) in it’s original state:

What really mystifies me is that I have come across few managers who are even prepared to have this conversation. My conclusion is they are afraid staff will then go seeking to achieve exactly what they have said and then they will be forced to give higher ratings.