Once 300 whales pursuing sardines marooned themselves in a bay. Commenting on the tragedy, Frederick Boan Harris wrote, “The small fish lured the sea giants to their death. They came to their violent demise by chasing small ends, by prostituting vast powers for insignificant goals.”
Sometimes I feel like one of those whales.
My tasks are too great to be distracted, and my time is too valuable to be wasted. So is yours.
Over the years, I have learned how to accomplish a lot despite multiple demands and distractions. Working from home has created new challenges, but I found the lessons I learned to still serve me well.
With more of your team working remotely, are they maximizing productivity? I have no doubt that they want to; I have every sense that they are challenged to do so.
Three key practices will increase productivity for you and your team, especially when the creative process is required.
There is a difference between intention and structure. I know executives who are highly structured in how they work and still get frustrated with their productivity.
In today’s new work environment, structure is secondary to intentionality. Flexibility belongs to the intentional.
To be intentional means that I am aware of the work I need to do and the rhythm, cadence, ebbs and flows with which to do it in. Like a surfer, I know when and how to catch the wave; but the wave is not a result of my making.
To be productive, I am intentional about three types of work: the decisions I must make, the commitments I have made, and the undesirable work I must do.
Decision fatigue is real. After making a series of choices, we begin to think less about choices that are before us. One study on parole boards indicated that prisoners who faced the board in the morning fared better than those who faced the same board in the afternoon of the same day.
When I know I need to make decisions, I schedule time to do so when I will be able to think through all the factors clearly.
We have professional and personal commitments we want to honor. I write them down (I use the term “write” loosely. My device houses my record of commitments). I can only carry so many things in my head. Too many times, I have had to apologize to a person, “I failed to write that down." For me, if I don’t write it, I don’t do it.
3. Undesirable work
We also face commitments we would rather put off. They just aren’t fun. Rather than wait until I am in the mood, or schedule doing them at a time that will negatively affect my otherwise delightful workflow, I give these commitments their own special treatment.
Generally, I schedule undesirable work in transition moments. I accomplished something I enjoyed, and I am soon to start another compelling project. In-between, I will address the undesirable. I will schedule it for a time that I am fresh so that I can knock it out fairly easily, and I will make sure I tackle it in a pampered environment (favorite beverage at least), with a reward waiting for me (a nicer than usual lunch, etc.).
I feel a bit silly reading back that last paragraph – but it works for me.
Efficiency has to do with the most effective way of meeting all my commitments.
There are three constants I attend to: noting the tasks required, prioritizing the time blocks needed, and keeping the resources I need at hand.
Every commitment has tasks that lead to their fulfillment. I work backwards from a commitment: Once I know the end, I note what needs to happen before that, and the one before that, until I reach the beginning. I have found that to be far more efficient than projecting forward. I don’t miss steps this way.
I am a creative. So are you. So are many of your team. Creatives, especially, require blocks of time to do their best thinking, what is commonly referred to as deep work (Cal Newport).
The more blocks of time, the better, and the longer the blocks of time the more essential it is to build in time for breaks and movement.
I guard my blocks of time. In the office, I used to post a sign on my door, Creativity Brewing. Though I usually had an open-door policy, the sign signaled that I was not to be disturbed except in the case of an emergency.
At home, I guard blocks by careful management of my phone and consistent reminders that I don’t need to check anything! Close to this: I’m a very responsive person. I answer texts and emails frequently. In my blocks, I just cannot do this. I give myself permission to let people wait.
Mostly, I guard my blocks of time by seeing them for what they are: gifts to invest myself into something I care about.
I also keep resources at hand: tools, links, references, passwords, thoughts, and anything else that is frequent to me is organized and stored for easy access on my device.
I’ve burned my share of midnight oil (and I’m not a night person). I’m too old for that now.
Energy is everything in being productive. I pay attention to my mental energy, physical energy, and emotional energy.
1. Mental energy
I do my best thinking in the morning and in the final stretch of the workday. I block those times for creative work.
Mental energy isn’t just about when, but how.
The environment is not as important to me as the lack of distraction. I can work in a coffee shop with people all around me and do good work. I don’t know them. In my home office, I can be distracted by an unexpected sound outside my window. Even now, my wife is playing the piano on the other side of the wall. No big deal, I’m used to it, and it’s pretty. But if she slams the lid on her finger, this writing is all over.
2. Physical energy
Author Ron Mehl wrote of a time he visited a new friend at his bowling alley:
It seems that every couple of weeks, this particular bowling establishment removed all of their bowling pins from service and put them on a shelf, alternating them with another full set of bowling pins out of storage. And do you know why they do this?
So that the bowling pins could rest.
"Come on," I told my new friend, “Bowling pins need to rest?”
He swore it was true. They apparently discovered that if the wooden pins don’t “rest”, they lose their vitality, and won’t bounce around as much or be as “alive”. All of that flipping and knocking around works as hardship on the pins, it seems, and eventually takes its toll. But if you give them a week off and set them in a corner, they’ll come back stronger with more life than ever.
Sometimes I feel like one of those bowling pins.
Rest. Nutrition. Movement. They are the big three that feed physical energy. Do you know how your team is doing with these?
3. Emotional energy
I am a positive person. I’m an off-the-chart optimist. And I can be a victim of negativity.
I’m the kind of guy that will replay a conversation that went bad; often, I will have arguments in my head, which I always win, but do nothing to alleviate my blood pressure. I don’t mind problems; they can be solved. But negativity lingers.
Because of this, and because negative situations cannot always be avoided, I don’t schedule creative blocks before or after what I know might be a negative situation. The call to make, the tough email response to give, the evaluation that will involve a hard conversation - never before or after my productive blocks.
You and your team want to succeed, want to do good work, want to knock it out of the park. Desire is not the problem. Demands are. Distractions are. Daily details are. And all those seem to be heightened concerns in our new work model.
But they are small fish. You are a sea giant. Don’t be lured.