Being Busy vs. Being Productive

July 12, 2018

On any given workday I find myself continually distracted because I’m multitasking—constantly switching from one task to another: writing an email while listening to the radio, answering a phone call while responding to a text, thinking about a particular client issue while the kids bicker in the background.

It’s not unusual for me to have five browser windows open and I’m often reading three or more books at any given time. And, as someone who works out of a home office, there’s the dog, the doorbell, and various other interruptions.

Little wonder it’s so difficult to remain focused on the task at hand. With the implied urgency of the text alert, the phone ringing, the dog barking, what is urgent has surpassed what is important. And that is a huge problem.

Turns out it is possible to maintain focus if you can sort through what is important and urgent. Then decide what can be planned out, what can be delegated to others, and what can be dropped because it is neither urgent or important.

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important,” according to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This quote has evolved into what is called the Eisenhower Box.

The most productive people I know and admire are not those who are super busy, but those who are super focused. Their ability to tune out the noise in order to concentrate on what is most important is truly remarkable and admirable.

These are people who are disciplined to make the time and space for important and urgent things. They schedule when to do the important yet not necessarily urgent work and they follow up on it. They are willing and able to delegate that which is urgent, yet not important for them to do themselves. And they are people who eliminate tasks that are not important or urgent.

Years ago I read Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek. I also learned that multitasking actually prevents us from being truly productive. Nevertheless, it is rare that I make the time and clear the space for truly focused work. When I do, however, I am rewarded with the accomplishment of completing urgent and important things. This takes a great deal of discipline to maintain.

No matter what you do for a living and who employs you, it is the important and urgent work where you need to focus your time and energy. To do this it’s necessary to filter out that which you can decide when to do later, delegate what others can do for you, and delete whatever is unnecessary because it is neither important or urgent.

Being Busy vs. Being Productive

I recently put into place a plan for those things that are important yet not urgent such as responding to emails, writing blog posts and walking the dog. As an independent consultant, it’s a bit more difficult for me to delegate, nevertheless, I now enlist family and friends to share in the responsibility for urgent tasks in my personal life. These include shuttling the kids, shopping for and preparing meals, and planning trips. And I’ve dropped my Facebook account, greatly reduced my internet browsing, and refrained from obsessively consuming news.

All of these have enabled me the time and space for work that is truly important and urgent. Of course, it takes discipline to maintain this and there’s a tendency to retreat back to other tasks because it can be very satisfying to be busy and to check off accomplishments.

The important and urgent work is often harder. It’s like work that is strategic versus tactical. Strategy is much more important, yet less likely to be appreciated and satisfying because the results and rewards are not immediately apparent. Tactical work is more tangible and evident to ourselves and others. Delayed gratification is necessary for strategic work.

If you want to be more productive, you need to first determine what things are important and urgent. Then by deciding, delegating and dropping the rest, you will find that you have created the time and space for the important and urgent work.

Stop being so busy that you are unable to focus on what is urgent and important in order to be most productive.

Increased Productivity Requires Focused Attention & Changing Bad Habits

November 2, 2011

In today’s workplace people are working harder than ever, yet the results may not reflect this in a way that shows increased productivity. Part of it may be due to a lack of focus on getting results. And part may be because bad habits keep us from succeeding.

Getting results requires focusing on only that which matters. Self help author and motivational speaker Brian Tracy describes what he calls the “law of three” in business management. According to this law, aside from the three most important tasks or results you want to achieve, everything else contributes just 10 percent of actual results.

Unfortunately, most people spend 90 perecent of their time on activities that contribute very little and then wonder why they are making so little progress.

Tracy suggests you first determine the three most important results you must achieve in order to be successful. Typically, it’s one primary result with two supporting results that are essential in order to succeed in achieving the first. For example, the first could be sales volume, while the second and third would be effective marketing to attract qualified prospects and effective selling to convert prospects into customers.

Next you need to eliminate all the “busy work” you end up doing each day that gets in the way of focusing all your time and energy on these three results 90 percent of the time.

Take a critical look at your job description. Does it acurately reflect what the company needs you to do in order to succeed in your three most important results? If not, see if you can refine it and then present this to your manager. You are not looking to be confrontational, but you want to ensure your time and energy is used to produce results the company wants and needs from you.

The other side of the equation has to do with your own bad habits that may get in the way of reaching results. This is where you have to take an honest appraisal of yourself and identify what you do habitually that keeps you from staying focused on your three results.

“Success and failure are more a result of your habits than anything else,” says Tracy

If you can increase your good habits and reduce your bad habits, you will dramatically contribute to your success in life. This is easier said than done, of course. There is a saying that bad habits are like comfortable chairs—easy to get into, but hard to get out of.

Here are 12 steps for changing a bad habit:

1.      Make a Plan – Write this down; make the bad habit specific and describe what it looks and feels like to be gone.
One at a Time – As tempting as it may be to take on more than one, stay focused so you can be successful with just one habit at a time.
Take a Full 30 Days – There is no research to say exactly how long it takes to break a bad habit, but if this is something you do all the time then    30 days should be sufficient.
Acknowledge Your Triggers – You know better than anyone what triggers your bad habit, so you must determine a strategy to avoid or counter them. And for each trigger, determine a good habit you can use in place of your bad habit.
Avoid Environments/People That Trigger You – If there is a place or person that makes this habit more likely to show up, see if you can avoid it or them for awhile.
Acknowledge Your Obstacles – You also know what gets in the way of changing your behavior better than anyone. So think of a creative strategy to overcome them.
Ask for Help and Support – Don’t go about this without others to cheer you on and help you when you are weak.
Become Aware of What You Tell Yourself – All too often what we say to ourselves can counter what we try to achieve. Be mindful of this inner dialogue and correct it if necessary.
Stay Healthy – Take care of your physical health by eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep.
Determine Disincentives for Failure – Make failing to change this habit detrimental in some way that will help you succeed.
Give Yourself a Reward – Acknowledge and celebrate your success with a reward that will continually remind you of why you earned it.
If you Fail, Start Again – Like learning anything new, it may take more than one attempt to succeed. Don’t get discouraged, find out what went wrong, correct it, and start over again.

Bad habits can often sabotage your attempt to focus on the most important work at hand. It takes courage and commitment to remove these bad habits, but once you do, you will be rewarded for a lifetime.

This combination of focused attention on your three most important results and removing habits that get in the way of succeeding are the keys to making your hard work lead to increased productivity.

Performance Previews: Linking Each Other to Our Success

March 3, 2011

The current turmoil over union rights in Wisconsin as well as the overall economic challenges facing both public and private organizations should provide a springboard for altering the way we do business.

While I am not suggesting abolishing unions, I believe there is an opportunity for significant change in employee relations at this pivotal time. This change could have wide spread implications leading to increased fiscal accountability, higher productivity and greater employee engagement.

In a recent New York Times editorial titled, “Why Your Boss is Wrong About You,” Samuel Culbert argues that one way to do this is by doing away with performance reviews because they are entirely unfair. Performance reviews are too focused on pleasing the boss rather than achieving results, he says.

“They are an intimidating tool that makes employees too scared to speak their minds, lest their criticism come back to haunt them in their annual evaluations,” writes Culbert. “They almost guarantee that the owners — whether they be taxpayers or shareholders — will get less bang for their buck.”

Culbert is a professor in the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “Get Rid of the Performance Review! How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing — and Focus on What Really Matters.”

As I wrote in a previous post, performance reviews are all too often an HR necessity rather than an opportunity to improve performance and strengthen relationships between managers and employees. New methods such as Results Only Work Environment or ROWE can be helpful in holding the employee more responsible for achieving results.

Culbert suggests taking this ROWE methodology a bit further in what he sites as performance previews, which are a way to hold both boss and his subordinate accountable for setting goals and achieving results. A true partnership can then exist between supervisor and employee to reach goals that are based on shared interests and responsibility.

Once goals are established, the decision regarding how the work gets done can be made between the two people most responsible for it and independent from the organization. This relationship is based on mutual respect and can capitalize on the unique strengths and knowledge available rather than from some objective standard found in boilerplate review paperwork.

I once held a position where, despite my success in achieving the financial-based, project targets in the management by objectives (MBOs) agreed to in my employment agreement, I was not given my annual bonus because my supervisor decided I had achieved these only through his intervention. Though I disagreed with his assessment, I had little recourse.

What if instead we had worked as a team and his success was also determined by the achievement of these goals? Rather than he as my supervisor determining my compensation based on his own subjective interpretation of who did what and how the work got done, he judged this purely on results?

All too often in competitive workplace environments, there is too much office politics, jockeying for position, and silo mentality that is in the way of getting the work done. Performance previews may provide a viable alternative to performance reviews, especially if they lead to increased communication, teamwork and achieving the organization’s goals.

The current economic crisis provides us with a great opportunity to revamp the way we do business and implement a win-win solution such as performance previews.

I welcome comments on how your organization would benefit or suffer from such a change in the way to evaluate employees.

Social Networks Bottom-line Benefits Require Employee Focus

January 12, 2011

Companies embracing social networks both internally and externally appear to be achieving bottom-line benefits, but this requires more than technology. It also means empowering employees at every level to make decisions and provide them with more flexibility in how to solve problems.

According to recent findings by McKinsey & Company, a new class of company is emerging that uses collaborative Web 2.0 technologies (wikis, blogs, social networks, mash-ups, etc.) intensively to connect the internal efforts of employees and extend an organization’s reach to customers, partners and suppliers.

The McKinsey worldwide survey of 3,249 executives across a range of regions, industries and functional areas found that two-thirds of respondents use Web 2.0 technologies in their organizations and the results are paying off. The survey asked respondents about their patterns of Web 2.0 use, the measurable business benefits they derived from it and the organizational impact of Web technologies.

More than two-thirds (69%) reported that their companies have gained measurable business benefits, including more innovative products and services, more effective marketing, better access to knowledge, lower cost of doing business, and higher revenues.

This is great news for businesses and their shareholders as well as the economy as a whole. The widespread use of Twitter and Facebook is beginning to look like more than a passing fad, but as a valid way to leverage business opportunities. Blogging can now be used to reach customers more directly and establish stronger relationships.

This is also good for a company’s ability to increase productivity, innovate more and increase employee engagement. According to the survey, the internal organizational impact included increased information sharing, less hierarchical information flows and collaboration across organizational silos.

Those businesses who embrace Web 2.0 technologies both internally and externally deploy talent more flexibly to deal with problems and allow employees lower in the corporate hierarchy to make decisions.

Implementing any new technology in an organization requires employee training to use it, but in the case of Web 2.0, there is also a need to alter corporate culture behaviorally. Just because there is a wiki, doesn’t mean people will contribute to it. Blogging without guidelines, support and incentives won’t necessarily lead to greater usage.

Social networking requires truly embracing the social to be successful and this may very well change the way employees interact inside the organization. Information won’t flow more freely because of technology alone. It also requires a cultural shift in the way employees interact with each other that is based upon mutual respect and trust.

Perhaps this is what separates the 3% of companies included in the McKinsey survey who are considered fully networked—those that have embraced Web 2.0 technologies both internally and externally. They are realizing the most benefits because they have focused their efforts on the cultural aspects as well as the technology.

To realize the bottom-line benefits of Web 2.0, organizations need to focus on the behavior accompanying it. This means empowering employees and giving them greater flexibility to do their jobs.

How is Web 2.0 technology being adopted in your company? Is it just the latest business strategy or is it fully embraced and supported with a focus on shifting the corporate culture so that it can be successful?

Thriving in the Knowledge Economy

November 30, 2010

The American K-12 public education system is failing to keep up with our counterparts around the world. There is much blame to pass around and despite governmental programs like “No Child Left Behind,” many challenges have yet to be addressed.

Recent documentary films such as “Waiting for Superman” and “Race to Nowhere” are helping to bring this concern front and center, but it may take no short of a revolution to change how we currently educate our children.

And if American-educated students fail to meet the grade, this likely means they will not have the knowledge and skills to compete for twenty-first-century jobs. This is a huge concern.

Tony Wagner, a Harvard-based education expert and author of “The Global Achievement Gap,” explains it this way. There are three basic skills students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate.

Wagner’s thesis revolves around “Seven Survival skills”—the core competencies he sees as necessary for success both in college and in the twenty-first-century workforce. These seven survival skills are:

  1. problem solving and critical thinking
  2. collaboration across networks
  3. adaptability
  4. initiative
  5. effective oral and written communication
  6. analyzing information
  7. developing curiosity and imagination

In this knowledge economy it should also be clear that organizations need to prepare existing workers to meet today’s challenges. Many have focused on recruiting workers with critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and these are the things many colleges and universities focus on in their curriculum.

But what about the other skills not easily measured with academic tests? These include such straight-forward things as the ability to collaborate and effectively communicate as well as the more esoteric “developing curiosity and imagination.” If these are also essential skills that will enable workers to succeed in the new economy, how can they be developed with current employees?

Many in today’s workforce not only need assistance in learning these skills, but the organizations they work for must also encourage their use. If a company truly wants their employees to collaborate more, they must encourage teams to work together more cooperatively rather than compete with each other for projects and promotions.

Excellent written and oral communication skills are so often requested by employers and documented on resumes by prospective employees that there should be no problem. But, of course, there is. Improving written communication skills beyond text messaging and cryptic tweeting will only continue to be of concern.

Organizations who truly want their workers to take initiative must back it up with incentives (financial and otherwise) to reward this behavior. How often is the phrase “it’s better to beg for forgiveness, than ask for permission” heard around your office?

And if the company wants a worker to develop his or her curiosity and imagination, then the company must accept that there will be missteps, mistakes, and bad decisions along the way. Individual and organizational learning is the likely output and encouraging it can lead to the innovative thinking necessary to compete.

To thrive in the knowledge economy, organizations must have workers capable of critical thinking and problem-solving. They must have employees who effectively communicate, collaborate across networks, analyze information and are adaptable. They also need each employee to take individual initiative and develop their curiosity and imagination.

As with any employee improvement strategy, this requires management to back up their words with deeds. This means providing the training, support, learning, and incentives that truly promote the development of all these essential skills.

How well do employees in your organization problem-solve, effectively communicate and collaborate? If not very well, are there programs in place to address them?

Should Fun be Mandated at Work?

September 29, 2010

Fun activities in the workplace can often improve employee engagement. When these are mandated or poorly concocted, however, the fun can actually be counterproductive and reduce overall morale.

Some companies have used fun activities as a way to recruit new employees. It is used to increase customer engagement and even to help leverage social media opportunities. But is this fun really effective if it is mandated rather than grown more spontaneously?

Some examples of the fun activities I’m speaking of include:

  • TD Bank, the American arm of Canada’s Toronto Dominion, has a “Wow!” department that sends out teams in costumes to “surprise and delight” successful workers.
  • Google offers employees volleyball courts, roller hockey and bicycle paths to encourage hanging out longer in the workplace.
  • The London branch of Red Bull recently installed a slide in its office.
  • Acclaris, an IT company, has a “chief fun officer.”
  • Twitter claims one of its core values as creating “fun and a little weirdness.”
  • Zappos encourages workers to form noisy conga lines and then single out an individual colleague for praise, whereupon the person must wear a silly hat for a week.

What is it about fun that makes it necessary for employers to create it for us? Is this due to much of the younger workforce having had so many structured fun activities as children: heavily scheduled playdates by helicopter mothers, overly supervised slumber parties, too little downtime between extracurricular activities?

Encouraging employees to have fun while at work is all well and good, but this shouldn’t be a requirement. And what that fun looks like should not be decided by public relations or human resources departments in isolation of rank and file employees.

There are many ways employees can find more joy in their work. The most basic are not so much fun and games, as they are simply more supportive of the workers.

Fostering an environment where people feel empowered to do their best work should be executed long before efforts on creating fun. These can include such sensible things as:

Safe Environment – Ensure that every employee feels physically and emotionally safe to execute his or her job function. If employees are more concerned about their personal safety, they are not going to be able to enjoy any fun activities.

Open Communication – Provide the opportunity for every employee to feel free to speak with others throughout the organization. Keep an open door policy so that all ideas and concerns—both positive and not so positive can be heard.

Meaningful Values – Netflix includes nine behaviors and skills that they value in all employees: judgment, communication, impact, curiosity, innovation, courage, passion, honesty, selflessness. Working around people that embody these nine values would trump all fun activities for me.

Team Building – Provide opportunities where people can bond on topics outside the work they do. This can often be loads of fun with extremely powerful benefit of building trust and teamwork.

Advancement Opportunities – Ensure there is a career path for every employee so that expectations can be met and incentives exist to encourage moving up in the organization.

Flex Time – Perhaps the most fun employees can have is in first ensuring that their personal lives and families are taken into consideration. This could ultimately mean that an employee does not want to have fun at work if it means additional time away from his or her family.

These things will certainly help employees feel more joy in the workplace, which can result in higher employee engagement. They are also likely to improve productivity and that’s the kind of fun we could all use in this economy.

Genuine Praise Makes Good Business Sense

February 9, 2010

Having worked in for-profit and non-profit organizations provided me with an appreciation for both environments. In the for-profit sector, the pay was typically better and I generally found a greater sense of urgency for getting things done. In the non-profit sector, I felt a sense of altruism for what I was contributing to society and I received a great deal more praise. This last item always made me curious as to why giving praise to employees was not more widespread in the for-profit sector.

It turns out that giving an employee genuine praise often goes a lot further than even monetary rewards, and that makes good business sense.

According to a 2003 Gallup survey outlined in the book, “How Full is Your Bucket?” by Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton, 61% of American workers received no praise at work. And the biggest reason people leave their jobs is because they feel unappreciated.

Through their research of some four million employees in 10,000 business units and 30 industries worldwide, they found that workers who do receive regular recognition and praise: 1) increase their engagement among colleagues, 2) increase their individual productivity, 3) receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers, 4) have better safety records and fewer job-related accidents, and 5) are more likely to stay with their organization.

All of us need recognition and reassurance in our work lives just as we do in our personal lives. Praise increases the pride we take in our work and that improves job satisfaction as well as the quality of our products and services. Praise reinforces our relationships with co-workers and supervisors. Praise also keeps us from feeling that we are taken for granted and it builds company loyalty, which is all too rare these days.

So if praise is so vital to productivity, customer satisfaction, workplace safety, employee engagement, and employee retention why aren’t more organizations dishing it out more liberally? There could be many reasons. For instance, some managers, directors and executives simply are not comfortable with giving praise. This could be due to their family or educational backgrounds, or because the corporate culture doesn’t encourage it. Some may believe that a paycheck and standard benefits package is sufficient and if you want a pat on the back, you should get it in your personal life.

Whatever the reason for-profit organizations skimp on this simple strategy, it is time to reverse the impulse to hold back praise and instead let it flow.

Here are some suggestions for delivering praise in your organization:

Praise with purpose. Your purpose in praising someone at work is not to get him or her to like you. The purpose is to increase employee productivity, engagement and retention. Praise should not be confused with a compliment. You compliment someone on their sweater, but you praise them on their skill at finding a solution to a business problem.

Praise with honesty. Employees can easily see through an empty statement that lacks genuine appreciation. This can damage your credibility and possibly make things worse. Instead, genuinely deliver praise on something you see them do that is beneficial to the organization.

Praise with specificity. Target the praise you offer someone and don’t just say “great job.” Instead, say something specific such as, “That presentation you gave this morning was informative and has generated a lot of buzz around here.” Or ask an employee for his or her input on a specific project or problem. Soliciting someone’s advice or opinion is praising their intelligence and it makes them feel valued.

Praise in public and reprimand in private. This can be tricky if the employee is easily embarrassed, but publicly praising an individual employee can often improve morale of all employees. Simple kudos during a meeting or in a company newsletter can be good forms of public recognition. Just as important, leave all reprimands or critical feedback for private meetings.

Praise also does not have to come only from those on the top as praise should emanate in all directions throughout the organization. And it is likely to be contagious. Give it a try in your organization. Catch someone doing something especially well and tell them why you personally think that is so great. You may find in this little act that you end up appreciating your own job a little more.

Mark Craemer            

Employee Feedback: Is There Ever Enough?

January 25, 2010

One of the challenges I encountered in my previous career was getting too little time with my boss and receiving too little feedback on my performance. Not getting regular accolades for what I did especially well and constructive feedback for how I could improve, left me at a loss for how to best provide my boss and the company with what they needed from me.

I am not in the minority. According to a recent study by Leadership IQ, 66% of employees say they have too little interaction with their boss. This number is up from 53% in May 2008, the last time this study was conducted, and could indicate that the recent recession played a part in the results.

And while 67% of employees say they get too little positive feedback, 51% also said they get too little constructive criticism from their boss. On top of this, employees who say they didn’t get enough feedback were 43% less likely to recommend their company to others as a great organization to work for. The survey included 3,611 workers from 291 business and healthcare organizations in the U.S. and Canada.

Too often organizations view opportunities for interaction with the boss and feedback as part of an annual review. In my experience, annual reviews are seen as an HR necessity rather than an opportunity to improve performance and strengthen relationships between managers and employees. These reviews typically focus too heavily on past performance, salary increases and potential promotions. The fact that they are done only once a year and often viewed as a burden to many supervisors, annual reviews are not fully appreciated for what they can deliver.

Employee feedback needs to be provided more frequently and needs to be effective so appropriate action can be taken immediately. Looking at it from an appreciative standpoint, feedback can open the door to constructive dialogue between a worker and his or her supervisor. Constructive feedback can help build upon and spread what is working well and it can minimize or remove what is not working so well. And the best feedback should not be one way in nature, but allow for true give and take so there is an opportunity for better understanding and to strengthen the relationship.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, employees may join a company because of its prestige and reputation, but they leave a company primarily due to their relationship with their immediate supervisor. Strengthening this relationship through regular dialogue can lead to greater employee engagement, increased productivity and potentially long term retention.

Organizations should demand that managers increase the amount and quality of feedback they give employees because it makes good business sense. This feedback needs to occur more than once a year and should include praise for positive performances as well as detailed constructive comments so that immediate corrective action can be taken if necessary. This is important not only because employees will feel better about doing their jobs, but because it can directly impact overall productivity as well as employee retention and recruitment.

Mark Craemer