Old habits don’t always make for good habits

Every office has one — the Carl. Now, I don’t mean every office has a guy named Carl, but the character type shows up everywhere. (Sorry to all the non-Carl Carls).

He, or she, has been there for 20 year. They set up the server system, or the project management system, or the billing system and are the only ones who understand the filing system because they set it up when they started. Carl panics at the words “Google doc” and doesn’t let anyone throw anything out because they remember this one time in 1993 when that random item was used. Suggestions for new technology are met with a stoic “this system works fine, and you’ll love it when you understand it.”

Carl rejects ideas with a sweeping “We tried that 10 years ago. It didn’t work.”

Even the boss is a bit afraid of these employees because, yes, their breadth of company knowelege is important and intimidating. New employees with fresh ideas resent these people because they can’t implement their ideas without offending the Carl.

Frankly, Carls are productivity killers.

Sure, Carls can turn out a lot of work. There is no doubt about it. They’ve been doing it for 20 years — they’d better be good at it and fast too. The problem is that new people not imtimately familiar with the non standardized or needlessly complex systems take longer to train and are consistently going to be slower at these rote tasks. Typically, there may be simpler ways of doing things — ways that didn’t exist 15 or 20 years ago — that would make non-Carls more effective.

Just because a system works doesn’t mean it’s the best system — but Carls resist change. Just because a person becomes accustomed to a system doesn’t make it the best system. Instead of being held captive by Carl, make it mandatory to review technology and workplace solutions every couple of years and make sure the company has the best, most effective systems in place. Productivity problems and solutions evolve over time and a new solution may solve an old problem.

There is nothing worse than the dismissive statement that something was tried in the past and rejected and therefore should never be tried again. This would only be true if the marketplace, staff and technology also never changed.  If someone sees a way to make something more productive, and it sounds similar to something tried in the past, see how it may now be useful to overcome previous barriers.

The workplace can’t revolve around Carl just because he or she is able to perform well under the circumstances. Environments need to have processes and systems that support all staff.

Coming soon: What to do with a Carl who is preventing productivity improvement.

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Keep Christmas under wraps in the office

Diversions come in many forms this time of year (think out of  town guests, last minute flights, menu planning, picking up those last few gifts and singing holiday pets on YouTube). However, there are still deadlines to meet, projects to wrap, clients to call and emails to send. The work’s not done, and yes, productivity in the office is still expected until the doors are closed for the winter break.

The best thing you can do is leave Christmas at home. Yes, your mind is being pulled in about 1,000 directions and in the middle of a client presentation you may suddenly remember to take the turkey out of the freezer when you get home. Write it down, and forget about it. Seriously. Make a note and forget it. Writing down things when they do pop up will enable you to stop making lists over and over in your brain, which really should be writing that report your boss asked for instead.

Know thy obligations — and get them into the out of office calendar well in advance. Come on, you knew your kid’s school Christmas play was coming up for months. That’s what school newsletters are for. Book it off and give people the notice they need to work around your absence. Then, cross your fingers and hope others do the same.

Be culturally sensitive. Work environments are diverse and not everyone is drooling over the idea of putting up an 8 foot high Christmas tree and baking too many butter tarts. Keeping the Christmas chaos to a dull roar in office will make the time of year a more positive experience for those not celebrating. And a positive workplace is a productive workplace.

If holiday tunes are a must have for you, play them on your computer with your headphones in. Some people can’t handle listening to more than 70 different versions of White Christmas (seriously, count them for yourself). It distracts them and there is enough to do at work without being driven mad by this seasonal favourite.

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Plan to enjoy the holiday season

You’re probably already panicking about the holiday season. Just how the heck are you going to get all the shopping, wrapping, cooking, socializing, cooking, socializing, decorating done?

 Simplify.

This is a word we never associate with the holidays, but in order to get it all done, and more importantly, enjoy the festive time of year, it’s imperative.

1. Identify your priority traditions — and ditch the rest. What defines Christmas for you? Is it the time you spend decorating the tree as a family? A movie or play you watch each year? Take a few minutes to decide what you can and can’t live without. My husband and I make tourtiere each year. We enjoy the six hours spent in the kitchen and saddling our family members with excessive amounts of pie. However, if he doesn’t have time to do help with tree, that’s OK — I’m the one who loves doing that.

2. Spread out the shopping. It may already be too late to do this for 2012, but I strongly recommend you start shopping at the end of August. Three reasons — you catch amazing back to school or end of summer sales, you don’t have to battle the Christmas crowds and you have time to find the perfect gift and not just grab something to have something to give. It’s more relaxing and it buys you precious time.

3. Pay someone to clean your house. Yup. Even if you never have it cleaned by anyone by you any other time of year, coerce (and pay) someone to do it for you. If you have a teen, see if they’re interested in the cash. You may know someone who needs a bit of extra money during this expensive season who has time to help you out. Or, hire a professional cleaner. Have them come in while you’re at the office right before it closes up for a few days or right before all your company arrives. Clean house, no fuss no muss.  The time you’ll save will let you focus on those priority traditions.

4. Know your limitations and don’t accept invites or guests you can’t handle. It’s OK to say no. While holidays do tend to have certain obligations and you probably can’t ditch your grandma on Christmas day, you don’t need to accept every invite or would be guest that comes your way — unless you want to.

5. Let people help you with the food. If you’re having a dinner party and someone offers to bring something for goodness sakes’ let them bring something. Most people won’t offer if they don’t actually want to help and one less thing for you to prepare means less dishes to wash and less time spent in the kitchen. People love to show off their holiday cooking, so spread around the kudos to your guests. Unless, of course, you’re trying to hide from them in the kitchen. In that case, make all the food yourself.

6. Prepare as much as you can in advance. This might mean writing Christmas cards in September. It’s not as bad as it sounds. But if this is a chore you’d rather avoid anyway, there is no point in waiting until Dec. 22 to hand write a bunch of notes when you’re already stressed out of your mind because you DIDN’T prioritize. Are you sure you even need to send cards?

7. Stop beating yourself up because the lights burned out/turkey was overcooked/wrapping was a mess/you skipped a party/cookies looked like blobs. The holiday season is about fun, love and compassion. Take some of those things for yourself so you have more to share with others.

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Stop Googling: and 4 other time saving tips

Just in case last week’s tips to improve your output didn’t solve all your problems magically, here are a few more.

Keep in mind that change takes time and becoming better at time management takes commitment and hard work. But eventually, optimizing your time can become second nature.

1. Stop Googling. The Internet may very well be the biggest time suck of all. Yes, you can get some valuable information, but it’s just as easy to have an hour disappear because you’ve been clicking on headlines like “French woman gets $15 quadrillion phone bill.” Use the Internet sparingly. All the time you save doing so at work will give you more time to click to your heart’s content when you get home.

2. Stop spastically checking your email. The world is not going to implode if you check it in the morning and  then ignore until right before lunch. If a client needs something, they’ll call. Obviously, if you’re a community manager or have a role that requires instant communication with clients, this doesn’t apply to you.

3. Stop multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is not your friend. You waste time jumping from one thing to another. If you don’t have the luxury of working on one thing, finishing it, and then doing the next, set time increments for projects. An hour spent here, an hour spent there — you get the idea. Just make a point of only focussing on one thing at a time.

4. Set deadlines for those never ending projects.  Just because something can take forever doesn’t mean it should.  If something has been sitting on your desk and hanging over your head simply because it gets bumped for other things, enforce your self-imposed deadline as a priority.

5. Know when to admit defeat. I had a roommate who worked insane hours at a newspaper. But sometimes she’d come home on time, flop onto the couch and say: “You know those days where something that normally takes you 20 minutes takes eight hours instead and it’s still not finished? That article can wait until tomorrow when it won’t take me all freaking night. What episode of CSI are we on?”  She knew when working all night wasn’t going to solve the problem or get the job done, so she’d call it quits. Tomorrow always is another day.

 

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Admit it: you need 5 ways to improve your time management

It’s OK to have bad time management skills. What’s not OK is to think you have amazing time management skills when really you’re running around in circles and complaining about how busy you are.

In my experience, the people making the most noise about the workloads and telling everyone they’re just soooooo busy are the people who are trying to hide the fact they can’t manage their time.  There’s a bit of self-rationalization going on that says: “If I convince people I have too much work to do, and they agree with me, then they won’t figure out I don’t have it together.”

The good news is that bad time management is not a character flaw — it’s a missing skill set from the tool box. You can become better at time management.

How?

1. Stop making excuses. If you find you’re spending any part of your day complaining about what you have to do, stop. Take that time to review your workload, delegate things that aren’t your responsibility and organize your desk. Working in a mess is distracting and you’ll have to waste time later looking for something that should have been put away.

2. File your paperwork. Clean out your inbox. Deal with any piddling details you’ve been putting off. You may have to do some overtime to get it done, but having a (somewhat) clean slate is going to make your life easier moving forward.

3. Make a to-do list. Don’t bother procrastinating with fancy online tools. Write it down. That’s what legal size is for. Organize it in a way that makes sense to you. If something pops up that needs doing, write it down. Don’t necessarily switch tasks just because a new shiny one is in front of you. When you’re done something, move on.

4. Set boundaries. If you need to have two hours during the day when you can’t be interrupted, start spreading the word. Outline what you can and cannot be interrupted for. If someone pounces on your for something during that time, ask them if you can deal with it when you’re ready to, or if it needs to be handled right that second.

5. Ask a friend. If you have a friend or colleague you admire for their ability to churn out work and hit deadlines (without working until 9 p.m. each night), ask them how they do it. Ask them if they think your time management skills could improve. If you are lucky enough to have an honest friend, they may in fact tell you your time management sucks. Thank them. Now you know your workload is manageable with some changes.

Next week: five more ways to manage your time better.

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There is enough time to do what needs doing

“There aren’t enough hours in the day.”

How many times has this phrase been uttered in despair? I’m certainly guilty of saying it. But over time I have deliberately wiped it from the list of acceptable cliches (assuming there is such a thing). I’ve come to realize that this is simply not true. Perhaps more accurately there are two types of people who utter this phrase:

1. Those who take on far, far too much

AND

2. Those with little -to-no time management skills.

This blog post will address the first type, and in a blog post coming soon I’ll offer some tips on figuring out if you’re in that second category and what you can do about it. The good news is both these problems are fixable and you too can have enough hours in your day.

We live in a high pressure culture that demands a lot of output from us. And our lives demand a lot from us. Most people in salaried positions work easily more than 8 hours, have families and friends, more than one hobby, necessary chores like banking and laundry, side projects like writing a blog, volunteer obligations, gym memberships and oh, yeah, we’re supposed to relax too and Tweet about it while we’re at it. Right. I’ll squeeze that right in. So what to do?

Learn to say no — and don’t feel bad about it. It’s often repeated that saying yes to everything in fact means saying no to something — and sometimes that something is your mental health. So if some request is going to push you past the limits of what you can handle or prevent you from having a night in (finally!), then say no. Take some time to refresh yourself so you can focus on things you’d rather be doing or really need to be doing.

This can be hard to do at work. There will be times when workloads pile sky high and it’s hard to slough it off. However, if you’re stuck in a perpetual hole it’s time to do a few things.

- Assess what you’re doing outside of your job description. If it’s more than a handful of easily managed tasks, it’s time to chat with your boss about staffing resources and responsiblities.

- Don’t volunteer to plan the office Christmas party or potluck. Let someone else do it this time. Don’t cave to whiners who point out “But you alwaaaays do it.”

- Be honest with yourself about your delegation skills. Are you doing something because you don’t want to pass it off to your staff? Don’t be a responsibility hoarder.

If you do those things and haven’t gotten yourself even a bit out of the hole, maybe it’s time to consider that your time management skills aren’t what they should be.

Celebrate addition through subtraction. If you don’t love it drop it. If it isn’t helping you achieve some sort of goal in your life, drop it. If you worry every day about having to do it, drop it. Of course, you need to go to work, do your banking and get some exercise, but if you eliminate the extraneous activities that have become a chore (or aren’t your responsibility), you’ll have more time to, dare I say it, relax. Plus, eliminating all that stress, dislike and worry is going to improve your outlook on life and enable you to become more productive.

 

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Get more done by giving people what they want

The method of communication can be just as crucial to a productive exchange of information as the message.

Not everyone likes to get information in the same way — and it’s easy for people to ignore or disregard information that doesn’t fit into their workflow or habits.

The easiest way to find out how to give instructions or get necessary details from a colleague is to simply ask.

- What is the best way for me to send you assets?

- What method of communication is easiest for you? Email? Instant message? Phone call?

- What are you most likely to respond to?

- What is the least effective way to get information from you?

If you’re moving into a new job, asking people this up front will eliminate a lot of wasted time guessing and testing. If you’ve been at your job for at least of few months, you may have already figured out what makes people tick. However, if you’re not getting the results — or the responses — you want, take a few minutes and ask. This is especially true for project managers, who deal with a cross section of the workplace, from upper management to designers, developers or others, depending on the industry. These different departments tend to have preferred approaches.

For some people, the project management tools used in an office will dictate how they want information. I’ve worked with developers who will ignore repeated emails, but if you make them a to-do in Basecamp or similar system, it will be done in 30 minutes.

This is a good tactic to use for bosses as well. Find out if they want an emailed round up of the day’s activities, or if a once a week update is better. Do they prefer a five minute chat at the end of the day? There is no doubt managers like to know what’s going on, but being pro-active and finding out how and when they want these updates is a great way to foster goodwill and demonstrate effectiveness.

The amazing thing is that people appreciate you took the time to find out what works for them, which will inevitably lead to a better relationship and more productivity.

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Discipline pays off for athletes — and employees

The Olympics have been a shining example of discipline and commitment. You don’t whip past line up of other runners like Usain Bolt or leap your way to a gold medal like Aly Raisman without a heavy dose of old fashioned discipline and focused, dedicated hard work.

This effort, while so appreciated in the sporting arena, appears to be undervalued in the workplace.

Recently, I overheard a conversation about a process failure regarding project legal documentation.

The person calling out the issue was told by her manager that sometimes people don’t follow the process because they don’t like it, or don’t want to interact with the necessary people to complete the task.

That may be true. Heck, I’m sure everyone can find something about their job that they don’t want to do, whether it’s making a dreaded phone call or taking out the trash. But highly skilled and effective workers have the discipline to fling themselves over those hurdles for optimum performance and better productivity.

We should be demanding excellence and discipline from everyone in the workplace, instead of making excuses for people performing lower than desired. Within highly competitive industries, what sets people apart is their discipline to complete what is necessary, despite roadblocks (real or perceived). Not every situation is going to result in optimal productivity — that’s where the discipline to persevere in adverse circumstances comes in handy.

 

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Stop interrupting yourself

I’m not going to write about the Myth of Multitasking, because there is literally a whole book you can reference about that. Plus, you have other things to do aside from reading a blog while you make dinner, while you watch TV, while you …

The basic concept is that multi tasking isn’t effective. Constant interruptions and changes in direction make us less productive and waste more time — which is a no-no. And I know what you’re thinking — you’re just so daaaang good at multitasking! Maybe. But that doesn’t mean multitasking is good for you, or your work day.

I’ve cut down on “multitasking” (often called switchtasking) by doing a couple of things and I’ve found I complete tasks more frequently.

I no longer check my email all day. I go through it all in the morning, and deal with as much as possible. I check it while I eat my lunch (I don’t recommend multitasking in this way, but hey, baby steps) and again at 3 or 4 p.m. If you set up notifications with your email service you don’t have to worry you’re going to miss anything important because a little pop up appears in the corner of your screen when one comes in.

I block tasks into certain times of day, based on importance and efficiency.  When I worked at a newspaper, I found that making all my calls in the morning was most effective. If I got voice mail, then I could anticipate a call back in the afternoon, and if I got a person I was able to knock out an interview right away while my brain was fresh. I had the added satisfaction of getting something important completed. Once all my calls were out, I could focus on updating the website or other things requiring less focus that could be interrupted with returned calls.

Sometimes I say “That will have to wait until …” Working in operations means I’m constantly interrupted with people needing a resource or paperwork or any variety of things done. While these are not always pressing somethings, the person doing the asking sure thinks they are! When I’m trying to complete something, I offer the requester a time I will be able to address their need instead of dropping everything instantly.  This way, I can dedicate my brain and effort to their needs. Of course, use common sense — not everything can wait.

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Spend less time in your inbox

Ever since I read The Tyranny of Email The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox, I’ve been hyper aware of the impact email has on my work day. John Freeman’s book, although sometimes incredibly humourous, drives home the point that not everything we do online is smart or useful.

I’d argue improperly used email is annoying, frustrating and a complete waste of time. Instead of using it as tool to support our work flow and our tasks, it becomes the dominating task. If I’m not careful, I can spend two hours of my day doing nothing but reading or responding to email. This is not the most productive way to work.

The good news is everyone can help cut down on time wasted by doing two things.

- Stop sending useless email.

- Communicate better when using email. 

Email etiquette is not only polite, it saves time, money and can help you be more productive. Here are some of things you should stop doing right now and recommendations for what to do instead.

1. Stop copying everybody. If you’re a manager and need to have another team do something for you, email their manager, not the manager, the staff and the intern. Believe it or not, if you send a personal email to your fellow manager outlining your request and what you need, they may be even more receptive to granting your request an assigning resources to your issue. No matter who you are, carefully assess who actually needs to respond to or see your email, and only send it to those people. Less is more — just like with makeup.

2. Don’t copy the boss unless it’s necessary. Here’s an example: if you need business cards and you send your request to the correct department, don’t copy the CEO. Even if the CEO ultimately needs to approve the cards, your colleague probably knows that. Don’t bother needlessly copying upper level management unless it’s standard practice or you really are trying to shame someone into action.

3. If you need to send your email to more than one person and there are action items in the email,  assign tasks and request a response. For example, if you need Joe to fix the printer, Sarah to order new toner and Matt to reschedule your meetings, say so. Don’t send out a list to three people and generally state you need these things done. Everyone is going to assume everyone else is taking care of it.

4. Actually read your email. I recently sent a list of three questions to a colleague. Her response was “OK.” First of all, my email didn’t contain any yes or no questions, and second of all, I had to email her again reiterating my questions. We both had to send additional emails that could have been avoided.

5. Be specific. If you need precise information, don’t send out an email causally stating you’re looking for info on the topic. Ask your specific questions, (number them for easier reference in the response) and give the person a deadline by which to respond.  This way, you’re less likely to end up with a response that doesn’t give you the info you were looking for, resulting in a follow up email.

6. Don’t assume the person the receiving end of you email knows what you’re talking about. I think we’ve all received email that appears to pick up in the middle of a thought, a rant or otherwise appears totally out of any context we are aware of. As the sender, take a moment to make sure your email offers context and explains where you’re coming from. Make sure your email is clear before you send it.

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