More Productivity Tips

Andreas Klassen

In my last post I highlighted some of my favorite suggestions for boosting productivity contained in Daniel Pink’s newly-published book “When - The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.”  More today.

Pink reveals that the prospects of success in an endeavor can be enhanced by following a few simple procedures. First, perform a “pre-mortem.” That’s another way of saying “Begin with the end in mind” (per Stephen Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of highly Effective People”), but focusing on taking a look ahead to anticipate what might go awry. So, imagine that you are tasked with completing a complicated analysis, or organizing a social function, or that you decide you want to open a restaurant. If you were to be UNsuccessful, what factors might have contributed? Failure to allow enough time? To get distracted or overwhelmed? To have insufficient monetary resources? Then challenge yourself to develop strategies that would address those factors. As Pink explains, “The technique allows me to make mistakes in advance in my head rather than in real life on a real project.” 

Second, to the degree you can, choose the right time to begin an initiative. Per my previous post, for most people the morning is a better time to undertake a project than is the afternoon. Beyond that, extensive research reveals that there are preferred days to begin a project, careful selection of which will actually increase the probability of success. These are all days that mark the beginning of a new cycle. Mondays. Birthdays. The first of the month (or year). The first day back from vacation. Important anniversaries. 

Another factor to keep in mind when contemplating when to begin an effort: “when people near the end of the arbitrary marker of a decade, something awakens in their minds that alters their behaviors.” Evidence for this is contained in the curious fact that people aged 29 are twice as likely to run a first marathon as those a year older or younger, and that people aged 49 are three times as likely to run a marathon as someone just a year older. This pattern also holds true for scoring statistics in football: in the last minute of a half teams score twice as many points as in any other single minute. It would seem that as we approach a clear demarcation we boost our efforts. The practical implication of this research? Set yourself clear deadlines. in fact, set deadlines for each stage of a project. When you are approaching that deadline chances are you may try just a little harder. 

If, despite following Pink’s multi-faceted advice you find yourself in a slump, there are several tried-and-true methods of re-motivating yourself.

Interim Goals: A tried-and-true method is to break large projects into smaller steps.  Facing a large, complicated task can be so daunting as to be paralyzing.  

Accountability: “Once you’ve set your sub goals, enlist the power of public commitment. We’re far more likely to stick to a goal if we have someone holding us accountable.”

Interruption: “When you’re in the middle of a project, experiment by ending the day partway through a task with a clear next step. It might fuel your next day motivation.

Don’t break the chain: Jerry Seinfeld makes a habit of writing every day, not just the days he feels inspired. To maintain focus, he prints a calendar with all 365 days of the year, and marks off each day he writes with a big red “X.” “After a few days you’ll have a chain” he says. “Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain - your only job next is to not break the chain.” 

Picture one person your work will help: Dedicating your work to that person will deepen your dedication to the task. Ona work-related project that person might be a boss, colleague, or client. With a more personal project (dieting, exercise, quitting smoking) think about who besides yourself would enjoy the fruits of your success.



New Ideas on Boosting Productivity

I just finished reading a remarkable new book entitled When - The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. It’s written by Daniel Pink, a brilliant, incisive, and delightfully readable author of three other must-read books focusing on career success: Drive, which draws on 50 years of behavioral science to overturn the conventional wisdom about human motivation; A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, which charts the rise of right-brain thinking in modern economies and describes the six abilities individuals and organizations must master in an outsourced, automated age; and To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, which uses social science to offer a fresh look at the art and science of sales. These books are among the most valuable of the hundreds I’ve read, each providing research-based insights that will improve performance not just at work but in other key areas of life (e.g. family, health, relationships).

When focuses on the effect that time of day has on mental performance across a broad range of categories. He reaches three key conclusions:

“First, our cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of a day. During the sixteen or so hours we’re awake, they change - often in a regular, foreseeable manner.

Second, these daily fluctuations are more extreme than we realize. The performance change between the daily high point and the daily low point can be equivalent to the effects on performance of drinking the legal limit of alcohol…..research has shown that time-of-day effects can explain 20 percent of the variance in human performance on cognitive undertakings.

Third, how we do depends on what we’re doing. Perhaps the main conclusion to be drawn from studies on the effects of time of day on performance is that the best time of day to perform a particular task depends on the nature of that task.”

Analytical tasks, requiring linear thinking, are most successfully undertaken in the morning, while creative thinking, more amorphous  and non-linear, is generally better in the afternoon. Why is this? Two primary reasons.“ First, when we wake up our body temperature slowly rises. That rising temperature gradually boosts energy level and alertness. Second, the stress hormone cortisol kicks in as we awaken to heighten vigilance, but declines as the day goes on. The result? A corresponding fall in the ability to remain focused and constrain inhibitions.  Focus and inhibition can limit the free-ranging kind of thinking necessary to solve creative problems.

In support, Pink cites research that amazes: student test scores are higher in the morning, traffic accidents spike in the afternoon, surgical errors are significantly more likely in the p.m., etc.

Pink makes numerous recommendations on how to enhance productivity in the face of these biological realities. He's a big fan of hydration. We lose a lot of water over the course of the night, so drinking a glass of water immeditaely upon arising helps wake us up faster. He's also a big breakfast fan, for similar "restorative" reasons ("it fortifies our bodies and fuels our brains").

Naps are something that he places great stock in ("the overall benefits of napping to our brainpower are massive, especially as we get older"), and offers some ideas on the best way to nap: short (10 - 20 minutes), and, oddly enough, preceded by a cup of coffee because caffeine, which takes about 20 - 25 minutes to kick in, helps arouse us from the lethargy that generally follows napping.

Taking frequent, short breaks has also been shown to enhance productivity. The ideal pattern appears to be an hour of concentrated work focus followed by a 15 minute break. The best kinds of breaks? Those that involve moving around (walking), that are social rather than solitary, that are taken outdoors rather than inside, and that are ones in which we as fully as possible detach from whatever it was we were previously doing. One particularly interesting study that he cites revealed that judges were far, far more lenient in granting a parole request after a break than before one.

What accounts for this phenomenon? When tired, we resort to a "default" mode of thinking that requires less mental energy. In that mode we are much more likely to follow a pre-existing way of looking at a problem, rather than analyzing the problem from a fresh perspective.

I will be sharing more insights from this fascinating book in my next post.


Starting a New Job


A new year is upon us... a time for new beginnings. Perhaps this will include a new job. If so, here are some suggestions on how to start off in the best way. Please note that these suggestions apply to the ”average” new job; they may not apply at all atypical situations such as when an employee is hired with the specific task of shaking things up (which could be the case in, for example, an acquisition).

1 - Go slowly

Naturally you want to make a good first impression. But beware the temptation to rush into recommending improvements without adequate understanding. For example, it may seem obvious to you after only a few weeks on the job that a system your new firm is using to track project profitability is outdated. But before suggesting a replacement learn about why that particular system was chosen, what its advantages are currently, and what degree of disruption would occur if the system were replaced. To repeat the oft-cited dictum, “First seek to understand, then to be understood.” 

Similarly, go slowly when it comes to forging bonds in the workplace. Due diligence should be exercised before you start selecting those to bond with - you’ll want to avoid getting too close to the grumblers and gossips, even though they may appear to have valuable insights. Those insights may start to poison your impression of your new job. 

2 - Build consensus and alliances        

As a new employee you’re going to be observed very carefully by your fellow workers. In order to maximize your effectiveness you’ll want to bond with your colleagues, bosses, and clients. Related to point #1 above, seek to learn as much as you can about them, prioritizing that over impressing them with your knowledge, skills, or accomplishments. There’ll be adequate time for that. Establish a reputation as someone who’s a team player, not as someone who’s chomping at the bit to demonstrate how much smarter they are than their peers. And don’t hesitate to put yourself out for others at work (especially your boss - see below) so as to build credibility, trust, and affection. 

I can’t overstate the value of building a relationship with a well-regarded mentor who understands the ins and outs of the interpersonal dynamics at your new place of employment. That mentor will also be really useful in helping you with the next point.  

3 - Be sensitive to your workplace’s culture  

The culture of a workplace is multi-dimensional, spanning such visible realms as dress code and office/cubicle decor to the more opaque realms of tolerance for creativity or deference to hierarchy. As a new employee you’ll initially want to be sure to fit in (or at least not stick too far out). That’s not to say you should become merely a clone - there’ll be ample opportunity to carve out a comfortable and appropriate image for yourself once you’ve learned the lay of the land. So, if office birthday parties are generally celebrated with home baked cookies, think twice before popping a bottle of Veuve Clicqot, as well-meaning a gesture as that might be. 

What if you determine that you’re not a great match with the organization’s culture? That, for example, it’s fairly bureaucratic and set in its way, whereas you’re someone who likes to shake things up at least every now and then. Well, it’s unfortunate that you didn’t discover this until you reported for work (you didn’t do enough up-front fact finding), but beware the temptation to ignore the mismatch and just focus on performing. Even the best performers can strike out if they’re not a good fit with the organization’s culture. Either find a way to improve your cultural alignment, or start looking around. 

4 - Impress your boss 

In most cases, your boss is the most important person in your new work life*. The more you can learn about your boss and the challenges that he or she is facing the better you will be able to add value. Making your boss’ life easier should rank right up there with performing your job well as a primary objective.

5. "Begin before you begin"

The brilliant writer and researcher Daniel Pink, in his brand new book "When - The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing," suggests that you visualize yourself "transforming" into your new role, imagining successful interactions with co-workers and your boss. "It's hard to get a fast start when your self-image is stuck in the past. By mentally picturing yourself 'becoming' a new person even before you enter the front door, you'll hit the carpet running." 

6. Sustain your moral with small wins

Starting in a new position is anxiety-provoking, and it's easy to fall prey to self doubt early on. Another Pink recommendation addressing this issue: when you enter a new role, set up for yourself small targets with a high probability of successful completion, and celebrate when you achieve them. They'll give you the momentum and energy to take on more daunting challenges further down the road. 

*There are, of course, exceptions, such as a situation in which you’re being brought in to ultimately replace your under-performing boss.


Uncomfortable Touting Your Skills or Accomplishments?

Last week I was hired by a client specifically to work with her on strengthening her interviewing skills. She had been seeking to leave her current place of work for almost a year, and had reached the interview stage a number of times, but was consistently losing out when it came to job offers. She knew deep down that she was doing a sub-optimal job of “selling” herself and confessed that “I was brought up in a family where I got the message that people who bragged about themselves were low class and basically untrustworthy, so I’ve never been comfortable talking about myself.”

Whether in an interview or often in a networking situation, it’s vitally important to be able to convincingly articulate your strengths and accomplishments. But it’s also vitally important that this be done in a way that feels natural, at least to a significant degree. Merely stating your assets without an accompanying sense of conviction will not be convincing; people are surprisingly good at sensing insecurity or insincerity.

So, if this is an issue for you, how should you tackle it? First, try self-examination. Rather than simply accepting the fact that you aren’t good at promoting yourself, be a detective. Where does this reluctance come from? Is it familial-based (as was the case for the client described above)? Is it related to your gender? Women, at least until recently, have been subtly discouraged from being boastful, as it is seen to be somewhat “unladylike”. Is it discomfort with your speaking voice or your mastery of vocabulary? Did you suffer some traumatic incident as a child (e.g. forgetting a line in a school play) the impact of which you are still carrying? 

Second, practice articulating your strengths in an anecdote-based manner. What I mean by this is, rather than simply stating a strength, for example "I'm an excellent team player," tell a little story about the strength. A couple of simple, illustrative examples:

"As early as age 8, when I first went to summer camp, I loved working for my team in Color War and learned how to contribute without stepping on other teamates' toes." Or "Right after I started my first job there was a major crisis and my department had to meet a really unreasonable deadline. I didn't wait to be asked, but volunteered to do whatever was necessary, establishing my reputation as a great team player."

Not only will situating your strengths in anecdotes make it more comfortable for you to espouse them, but they will leave a far more lasting impression than simply stating them.

Back to self-examination; unfortunately most people can’t really step outside themselves and do the kind of objective analysis that would identify the problematic issues. That’s why working with a trained professional, ideally with a good deal of psychological expertise, makes sense. Friends and family may have useful insights into your issue, but are unlikely to be able or willing to express them in ways that are as actionable for you as would be ideal.

Obviously, to the degree you can identify the source of your discomfort you can begin to employ counteracting measures, for example signing up for, and attending, Toastmaster sessions (Toastmasters International is a USA headquartered nonprofit educational organization that operates clubs worldwide for the purpose of helping members improve their communication, public speaking, and leadership skills). But probably the most valuable tool in improving your self-promotion is role playing with an accomplished coach who can help you determine how to best state and anecdotally illustrate your accomplishments,  so that you have a greater level of comfort in expressing them. Practice makes perfect, and repeated drilling of your key "selling" points will certainly improve your performance.


Advice for Budding Entrepreneurs

The following words* were written by Paul Graham (successful venture capitalist, computer programmer, and essayist - how's that for a combo!) on the qualities needed to be a successful startup entrepreneur:

Be relentlessly resourceful.

Not merely relentless. That's not enough to make things go your way except in a few mostly uninteresting domains. In any interesting domain, the difficulties will be novel. Which means you can't simply plow through them, because you don't know initially how hard they are; you don't know whether you're about to plow through a block of foam or granite. So you have to be resourceful. You have to keep trying new things.

That sounds right, but is it simply a description of how to be successful in general? I don't think so. This isn't the recipe for success in writing or painting, for example. In that kind of work the recipe is more to be actively curious. Resourceful implies the obstacles are external, which they generally are in startups. But in writing and painting they're mostly internal; the obstacle is your own obtuseness. 

There probably are other fields where "relentlessly resourceful" is the recipe for success. But though other fields may share it, I think this is the best short description we'll find of what makes a good startup founder. I doubt it could be made more precise.

Now that we know what we're looking for, that leads to other questions. For example, can this quality be taught? After four years of trying to teach it to people, I'd say that yes, surprisingly often it can. Not to everyone, but to many people.  Some people are just constitutionally passive, but others have a latent ability to be relentlessly resourceful that only needs to be brought out.

This is particularly true of young people who have till now always been under the thumb of some kind of authority. Being relentlessly resourceful is definitely not the recipe for success in big companies, or in most schools. I don't even want to think what the recipe is in big companies, but it is certainly longer and messier, involving some combination of resourcefulness, obedience, and building alliances.

This test is also useful to individuals. If you want to know whether you're the right sort of person to start a startup, ask yourself whether you're relentlessly resourceful. And if you want to know whether to recruit someone as a cofounder, ask if they are.

You can even use it tactically. If I were running a startup, this would be the phrase I'd tape to the mirror. "Make something people want" is the destination, but "Be relentlessly resourceful" is how you get there.

"Relentless" has a lot of negative connotations: unyielding severe, strict, harsh, never resting.  But it's really just further along the spectrum of what I call "showing up," doing things to consistently move the ball ahead (whichever ball you're moving).  If you're looking to break new ground you should evaluate where on the "doing" spectrum you want to be, and then ask if that is far enough towards where you need to be to successfully accomplish your goal.

"Resourcefulness" is a fascinating quality, a cross between creativity and cleverness.  It's an ability to find new resources to address a problem. People who are "stuck" in their careers / lives typically consider themselves to be anything but resourceful.  They've tried and tried, but have run out of ideas.  That's why so many of the people sitting in my office have come to me, often hesitantly because they feel they shouldn't need "outside help," but of course the very act of searching for outside help is a form of resourcefulness.

Your #1 destination for resourcefulness should be Google.  Whatever problem or issue you are facing, you can be pretty sure that someone else (or maybe even hundreds or thousands of others) have also faced it, have valuable perspective to share, and have taken the time and effort to express that perspective so that it can benefit others.  I am amazed at how many of my clients say "Good idea!" when I suggest that they consult Google.  Make it your default setting whenever you feel unsure or stuck - enlist those outside resources!

*Edited by me