Five Reasons to Take Massive Action: Making Busyness Your Business

by Laura Stack

“Do not wait to strike until the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”—William Buell Sprague, 19th Century American clergyman.

Five Reasons to Take Massive Action: Making Busyness Your Business

One theme I’ve emphasized repeatedly in my writings is that “busy” doesn’t necessarily mean “productive.” Just because you’re staying busy doesn’t mean you’re accomplishing anything important. Checking 30 tiny tasks off your to-do list may not prove nearly as significant (or as profitable) as completing one high-priority project.

To boost your productivity, work hard and constantly on the high-priority tasks that matter the most.  Multilevel marketers are fond of the term “massive action.” I find this a handy synonym for good, productive work, though some observers disparage the term, assuming it refers only to staying busy, rather than staying busy with intent. I see this as an over-simplification based on false assumptions.

The naysayers seem to assume you take massive action without planning ahead. That’s like assuming a traveler will just take off on a long trip without planning the route, putting gas in the car, and checking the oil and tire pressure. While some people really are this spontaneous, smart travelers always take a few moments to prepare before they start driving. Action should take place only after you’ve decided what target to hit and how. You do have to take action, though; sitting around and expecting the universe to reward you for happy thoughts won’t work.

Of course, you still have daily “housekeeping” tasks that must be done, including handling email and attending meetings, especially if you can’t delegate everything else at this point in your career. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take massive action on what’s most important once you get the small tasks out of the way or even in between.

Here are five reasons to take massive action in your work life:

1. To forestall the paralysis of analysis. Despite the old saying, knowledge isn’t power until it’s ignited with action. Sit and think too long, and you’ll never complete anything. Once you decide to do something and have enough ducks in a row, just do it. Handle the details on the fly. Even if they seem a bit sketchy when you begin, you can flesh them out as you go. The final result may not be perfect, but at least it will be done. If necessary, you can fix it later.

Continue reading Five Reasons to Take Massive Action: Making Busyness Your Business

Improved Communication: 3 Simple Ways to Boost Your Team’s Productivity

by Laura Stack

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” –Peter F. Drucker, Austrian-American father of management theory.

One of the things separating us from the animals is our ability to communicate easily and clearly. If fact, communication has helped us greatly widen that gap in the millennia since the first meaningful words left a human throat.Improving-Communication-carrier-pigeon

We’ve even adapted to speech biologically, with a special bone (the hyoid) that exists mostly just to support the tongue. If a clear communication method had never come about, we might never have invented writing, and our culture would have stalled in the Neolithic—if not earlier.

Every day, communication methods continue to improve, in ways both cultural and technological.  In this blog, I’ll suggest three basic ways to improve your ability to get your point across with increasing precision.

1. Hone Your Team Communications Skills

I can’t overstate the importance of open communication with your team. Unless you work for a corporation where client confidentiality requires compartmentalization, keep all team goals, imperatives, initiatives, and strategic alignments as transparent as possible. This helps your teammates find reasons to own their jobs and increase their engagement and discretionary effort. Learning which communication methods work best for each team member; using simple, clear language; listening to what others have to say; creating and maintaining a receptive atmosphere; and avoiding repetition will all save time and ensure productivity.

Encourage all these concepts among your team members, as well; and needless to say, act as a role model. Along the way, focus tightly on what you’re trying to say, say what you mean—and never let your body language undermine your verbal message. If you have a nervous habit or tic someone might construe as negative body language, get it under control. Continue reading Improved Communication: 3 Simple Ways to Boost Your Team’s Productivity

Four Training Tips: Maintaining Your Team’s Competitive Edge

by Laura Stack

computer-libraryRegular training for your employees is integral to productivity and profitability, meaning it’s something you should never take for granted. Among other things, training:

1. Improves Confidence and, Therefore, Performance. When people know they’ve been equipped to do their jobs properly, it boosts their spirits and reassures them they can achieve levels of competency and productivity they haven’t realized in the past. Further, when employees understand why their work matters and how to do it, they’re more likely to hit the mark or go above and beyond.

2. Saves the Company Money. Well-trained employees make fewer errors and require less direct supervision. Furthermore, they spend less time thinking about problem solving, because they already know what to do. Consistent training also decreases employee turnover—a big drain on corporate costs.

3. Earns the Company Money.
While money saved is equivalent to money earned, directly fattening the bottom line makes people sit up and take notice. A few years ago, Nations Hotel Company invested heavily in coaching and saw an ROI of 221 percent.

4. Increases Employee Productivity. Motorola long since realized that every dollar invested in training can yield as much as a 30% gain in productivity within three years. That let the company cut costs by $3 billion and increase profits by 47 percent in 2000 alone. According to another report—”The 2001 Global Training and Certification Study” by testing firms CompTIA and Prometric—as little as a 2% increase in productivity can result in a 100% increase in training ROI.

Researchers have consistently observed this effect over the years since. For example, Dillon Consulting, an inter¬national consulting firm, quadrupled its profits by 2009, after instituting a Project Management Training Program four years previously. Similarly, in 2013, BSkyB, a pay TV service in the UK and Ireland offering broadband and telephone services, reported a significant ROI after delivering 850,000 hours of training to its customer service representatives over a twelve-month period.

Big-Time Payoff

Good, consistent training more than pays for itself in terms of employee confidence, performance, productivity, reduced turnover, and dollars earned on the bottom line. Rather than view it as a necessary evil, treat it as a positive expense—just as you would any initiative that promises to increase profits and benefit everyone all the way down the line.

Stand-Up Guys: The Virtues of Standing Meetings

By Laura Stack

Stand-Up Guys: The Virtues of Standing Meetings by Laura StackIn the white-collar world, sitting down all day is both a blessing and a curse. Sitting makes it a lot easier to focus our intellects, since we’re basically in a resting but erect position; this also allows us to work interrupted for longer periods of time. But there can be side effects; too little physical exercise (as opposed to the mental exercise we enjoy daily) worsens the natural tendency toward “middle-aged spread” and makes us more sedentary. This results in less energy, slowing our productivity. Sitting too much can also interfere with or damage the circulatory process in our legs.

This is doubtless the reason why stand-up desks have become common (I love mine from Ikea). But who wants to stand all day? At some point, you tire of standing, your feet and ankles hurt, and you still have to stretch your legs frequently. Ultimately, a mixture of standing and sitting throughout the course of the day may prove most advantageous, though the jury remains out on this issue.

Be that as it may, some things you can do standing definitely boost your productivity. One is the stand-up meeting. Attendees ignore chairs, huddle together almost like football players, and talk as they would in a normal sitting meeting. Studies show standing meetings average 33% shorter than sitting meetings on the same subjects, proceed more efficiently, and usually end early or on time. And here’s the kicker: they burn 50% more calories, and actually have other positive health effects, including increased alertness. No wonder speakers and performers are always much more likely to stand than sit, above and beyond the need to be seen by everyone!

It’s no surprise that stand-up meetings run shorter than sit-down ones. After all, who really wants to stand in one place for an hour in even the most comfortable heels or loafers? There’s a good reason the gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the human body, right? If nothing else, physical discomfort forces us to confront and deal with our concerns more directly in a stand-up meeting.

Continue reading Stand-Up Guys: The Virtues of Standing Meetings

Respectful Creativity: Encouraging Different Viewpoints on Your Team

by Laura Stack

One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say. – Bryant H. McGill, American self-improvement writer and speaker

Respectful Creativity: Encouraging Different Viewpoints on Your Team Effective teams are most often led by leaders who expect innovation and therefore encourage diverse viewpoints. This is no secret, despite the fact that—as cynics will surely point out—we rarely practice the concept adequately, and I would agree. However, we also let pettiness, bureaucracy, groupthink, disengagement, laziness, and other failings hinder our creativity and slow us down. Business as usual runs down and crushes flexible creativity.

When I think of respectful creativity, I think of Steve Jobs and Apple. Steve Jobs was no saint; he had his flaws, but that just makes his story all the more amazing. The Apple Computers that reinvented home computing with the Macintosh in ’84 couldn’t have done so without a corporate atmosphere that both encouraged and nurtured creativity. When his own Board of Directors ousted him, the creativity seemed to stop.

Meanwhile, Jobs turned his creative genius to NeXT Computers and Pixar, until NeXT actually merged with Apple later and Jobs took over operations again. Was it a coincidence that game-changing products like the iMac, iPod, and iPad debuted in the years after his return? Not likely.

Continue reading Respectful Creativity: Encouraging Different Viewpoints on Your Team

That Sense of Belonging: A Teamwork Necessity

by Laura Stack a.k.a. The Productivity Pro®

“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people.“— Brené Brown, American author

We all want to belong, whether it’s as part of a marriage, a family, a social club, a political party, a community, a nation, or some combination of the above. The best workplace teams also provide a sense of belonging. Well-established work processes, mutual respect, a deep sense of familiarity, and a commitment to group decisions and actions can all contribute to greater productivity.

Perhaps most importantly, productive teams develop and live by a series of team norms. These represent the “rules” all team members work under, based on group consensus. They don’t have to be unanimous; but like most group decisions, everyone lives by them for the good of the whole.

Continue reading That Sense of Belonging: A Teamwork Necessity

Stop Procrastination in its Tracks!

by Laura Stack

This week, I’d like to discuss a form of self sabotage that I see all too often: procrastination, the fine art of putting things off. And off, and off, and off…

We’ve all let things slide when we shouldn’t have. It’s not always about forgetfulness, or overwork, or even laziness. In fact, some of the worst procrastinators are busy professionals who are otherwise successful in the workplace.

Ultimately, all procrastination does is generate anxiety and negativity. So why do we hobble ourselves this way? The reasons are rarely clear-cut, but often they consist of some mix of the following:

• Lack of self confidence
• Uncertainty
• Excess perfectionism
• Distractions
• Fear (of the unknown or a negative outcome)
• A perception of the task as difficult and/or time consuming
• Time pressure (either too little or two much)
• Anger or hostility toward the task
• Low frustration tolerance

What it all boils down to is that the unpleasant (or potentially unpleasant) tasks are the ones we tend to put off—no matter how high their value.

But all that really matters is how you fight procrastination. What can you do, in the real workaday world, to stop procrastination in its tracks?

Visualize. There are two basic kinds of motivation, and you can use both in your visualization scheme. First of all, consider the positive: visualize having that lingering task completed and out the door. What kinds of wonderful things will result? At the very least, imagine how great it’ll feel to have it off your plate!

Personally, I prefer positive visualization; but negative visualization can work too. You know from personal experience that unpleasant things rarely go away if you ignore them. They just get worse. What will happen if you let the unfinished task fester on your to-do list? There might be financial and career impacts.

Some researchers suggest you think of an ignored task as a cancerous cell: if left untreated, it’ll end up gobbling your time and resources, to your detriment. I think that’s a little extreme (even scary), but if you think it’ll work for you, go for it.

Strategize. If you have trouble getting starting, try breaking the task into smaller chunks—which is one of the basics of getting your high-value, high-intensity work done anyway. Plan how you’re going to tackle each individual subtask; if you have to, sketch out on paper how you’re going to handle them.

Put those subtasks on your to do list; and if someone doesn’t do it for you, set deadlines for each, along with an overall timeline for when you have to have the whole task completed. Then set out to meet those deadlines.

Eliminate distractions. How are you going to get anything done if you’re always checking your email, answering your cell phone, or surfing the Internet? If you’re easily distracted, get rid of the distractions until you make some headway on the task. Unplug the landline, turn off your cell phone, disable the Internet, and forget you even have email!

Get Busy. Assuming you have all the information and resources you need to move forward, action always beats meditation. Once you’ve given the task enough thought, leap into action. Focus like a laser on your task. If you have to, grit your teeth and tell yourself, “I’m going to do this, like it or not!”

And in Conclusion…
With some tasks, you simply have to put your head down and bull on through. No, it’s not likely to be fun; but then again, if it was, we wouldn’t necessarily call it work, now would we? While it’s great to love what you do (and of course that’s the ideal circumstance), as realists we know that we can’t love every single aspect of our jobs.

There will be certain tasks that you need to do, jobs that only you can do sometimes, that need your attention at least as much as the fun stuff. So do them. Even if you do it a little at a time, eventually you’ll get that monster task of your plate, so your boss will stop growling about it and you can stop angsting about it.

Debunking Productivity Myths: An Answer to Lifehacker’s Alan Henry

by Laura Stack

“It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” — Will Rogers, American humorist.

“We must not be hampered by yesterday’s myths in concentrating on today’s needs.” — Harold S. Geneen, American businessman and former president of ITT Corporation.

If you haven’t already heard the expression, “lifehacking” refers to the practice of developing little ways of making your daily activities more efficient. The term derives from the practices of computer hackers, who crack open commercial code and rewrite it for their own purposes.

Lifehacks focus mostly on improving personal life, so they don’t always lend themselves to workplace application, but sometimes they hit the nail on the head. Such was the case with an article by Alan Henry posted on December 5, 2012 at Lifehacker.com, titled “Seven Productivity Myths Debunked by Science (and Common Sense).” As it happens, I agree with Henry in several key areas, though I have to take a “yes, but…” attitude on his points.

In this vein, let’s take a look at the “myths” he explores.

1. You have to get up early to accomplish anything. This statement is a bit misleading. The original claim hinges on the argument that getting up early lets you accomplish more than most people—not that you’ll never accomplish anything important if you rise later in the day. Some people hit their energy peaks mid-morning, yes, and they should indeed rise early and get cracking. Yet others start slowly in the morning, and yet others have high energy in the evening or late at night. It can be counterproductive for night owls to attempt to do work requiring heavy brainpower in the morning. The reason I’m a fan of getting up early is to get your workout in and arriving early enough at work to enjoy a brief distraction-free period before everyone else arrives.

2. Power Through Your Slumps. Henry points out that trying to bull through low points doesn’t always work—a point well taken. But that doesn’t invalidate this piece of advice, because you can often power through slumps. Set an alarm to go off in 15 minutes and then jump into the task. By the time the alarm sounds, you may be able to continue easily. Sometimes I find I just needed to get some momentum. If you do nothing but pull your hair out, take a break or move on to another task you find easier to accomplish.

3. Multiple Monitors Increase/Decrease Productivity. Henry comes down solidly on both sides of this argument—a logical choice, because there’s no simple answer. Sometimes multiple monitors help you, sometimes they don’t. Personally, I love my huge dual monitors, because it allows me to put a document on one screen, while I type an email and refer to it. In any case, studies suggest the amount of monitor space matters more than the number of monitors…so one 30-incher can be just as productive as two fifteen-inchers.

4. The Internet/Information Overload Is Making Us Stupid, So Disconnect to Get Things Done. Some observers point out that our dependence on the ‘Net means we don’t keep everything in our heads the way we used to. But why should we, when we literally have every fact in the world at our fingertips? There’s only so much core memory to spare. The real issue here lies in the fact that constant connectivity distracts us from reality. According to a recent British study, overconnected people suffer temporary IQ drops equivalent to losing a full night’s sleep or taking too many hits of marijuana. So electronic overload really does make us stupid, but not by taking away facts learned by rote.

5. It’s Impossible to Get Real Work Done at Home/a Coffee Shop/Library/Away from the Office. Another multiple-choice “myth.” Ofcourse you can get real work done away from the office. The real issue is the noise level. Some open-plan offices result in endless distractions and noise, more so than an outside location, so you may prefer to set up on a park bench or at a local Starbucks. A quiet buzz might even prove beneficial. But I’ve also experienced cases where external “hideaways” proved so noisy I accomplished nothing. The real answer here? “It depends.” I write my books in 3-day marathons, sequestered in a hotel, disconnected from email. I get more done than I ever would in my office.

6. Sorting and Organizing Is the Solution to Email Overload. I have to take issue with Henry labeling this a myth. No matter how much email you get, organizing it makes more sense than dumping it into one big pile. I think it’s an excuse for not having a good workflow system (such as my 6-D System™: Discard, Delegate, Do, Date, Drawer, Deter) or not understanding how to use your email software. Around 95% of my corporate clients still use Microsoft Outlook. When I’m brought onsite to teach workflow seminars, I’m still amazed that 99% of attendees don’t know how to convert an email automatically to a task, turn an email into a task request that can be tracked by person assigned, or pull up a daily to-do list. They are using the inbox like a giant to-do list, not knowing where to “put” an email that requires a future response. If you need more fundamental training on processing your email, seehttp://www.TheProductivityPro.com/outlook.

7. [Insert Productivity Technique] Will Fix Everything and Make You a Happy, Productive Person with More Free Time. This isn’t a myth as such, though I admit that nothing works for everyone. On the other hand, everything works for someone. Time management/productivity plans just provide options for you to try. You may discover that the first method you test works fine; but you may not find your productivity key until you’ve tried dozens. Typically, we cobble together whatever time management system works for us, so most personal productivity schemas represent mutant hybrids other people might run screaming from. I know people who never use a scrap of paper for time management; others use nothing but, while still others use hybrid systems including notebooks, handhelds, organizers, email, and even whiteboards. It’s not right/wrong/good/bad—whatever works for you works. If it doesn’t, experiment with something new. Stop trying to be “hip” if it makes you more disorganized.

Reduce, Reduce, Reduce!

In the final analysis, take any declaration labeled “Truth” or “Myth” with a big grain of salt. You can’t condense human beings to simple numbers; we’re too random for that. The productivity and performance management fields don’t always attain the “hard science” status of physics or chemistry.

Make your own decisions as to what represents Myth for you, and what does not. Any productivity system acts mostly as a mnemonic guide to help you activate the few constants in the productivity equation. You’ll have to take in a lot more than you’ll ever use and then reduce it in the culinary sense: by boiling away the excess until you have a productivity “sauce” you’re happy with. No one else may like the taste at all, but the result will be delicious for you.

Look Back on 2012 and Look Forward to 2013

by Laura Stack

Life is divided into three terms—that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present to live better in the future.” — William Wordsworth, British poet.

If you’re anything like me, you recently looked up and wondered (or said aloud to a friend), “Hey, what the heck happened to 2012?”

As we all know from experience, time really does fly when you’re having fun. When it also flies at work, that’s a good thing, because you know work fascinates you nearly as much as play. Wonderful news, right? Be careful here: just because you’ve kept busy and enjoy what you do doesn’t mean you’ve actually accomplished anything lately. To get ahead, we have to leverage our past experiences to gain an advantage in the future.

So as you close out 2012, take a little time to study what you’ve learned. Ask yourself two fundamental questions when planning for the New Year:
1. How have I changed emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally, financially, and socially in 2012 (how can I usher out the old)?
2. What do I want to do more or less of in 2013 (how can I ring in the new)?

Ushering Out the Old

On the work front, look back and consider all the projects you and your team have completed, as well as the status of those in progress. How effective and productive were you? Questions you might ask include:

• Have I left anything undone I needed to complete this year?
• What project(s) do I feel happiest about completing?
• What was my greatest triumph?
• What was my smartest decision this year?
• How about my dumbest?
• What good habits did I pick up in 2012?
• What bad habits did I break?
• Did I pick up any new bad habits?
• What surprised me most?
• What was my biggest lesson learned?
• What was my biggest risk, and how did it turn out?
• Who impacted me most this year?
• What action would cap off 2012 perfectly?
• How could I sum up 2012 in 10 words or less?

Think carefully about each question. Take your time and write down your answers as you go.

Ringing in the New

The future represents the original “undiscovered country,” and one should be well prepared before blazing new trails. So after you’ve weighed the lessons of 2012, consider what you’ve learned and use that knowledge as you move forward. Not only will this help you avoid the stumbles of previous forays, it’ll prove useful in defining new strategies and goals. So pose another set of questions to yourself, facing forward this time:

• What accomplishment would make me happiest next year?
• What do I look forward to the most?
• What things (or people) should I avoid?
• What should I improve about myself?
• What can I do to enhance my professional value?
• How can I better my financial position?
• What external changes are likely to affect me?
• Does my current professional path take me where I really want to go? If not, how can I start changing that?
• Should I make more of an effort to indulge myself in any particular areas…or did I overdo it last year?
• What do I most want to learn this year?
• What do I expect to be my biggest risk?
• What’s my one-word theme for 2013?

Bottom Line

Viewed objectively, these questions have no right or wrong answers; the only answers that matter are those that feel right to you. My list of answers may not resemble yours. The point of this exercise is to learn from the recent past, so you have the proper ammunition and attitude as you charge forward into the future. Happy New Year!

Weeding Out the Inefficiencies in Your Workplace Garden

by Laura Stack

“There can be economy only where there is efficiency.” — Benjamin Disraeli, former British Prime Minister.

All leaders wear multiple hats, with their roles as Coach, Overseer, Mentor, and Good Example fairly obvious to anyone willing to look. But another function often goes unnoticed: that of Caretaker. Leaders don’t just juggle projects and push people to work harder; they also protect their team from any factor that might jam the gears of productivity.

While no analogy can survive over-analysis, you can consider any organizational unit (whether team, department, or division) a kind of garden, where a good leader works to weed out the inefficiencies in the system. This holds true whether those inefficiencies take the form of unproductive employees, bureaucratic red tape, or poorly designed processes.

Both your superiors and subordinates depend on you to rapidly recognize such issues and to deal with them quickly. So keep these tips in mind as you work toward converting your managerial challenges into profitable opportunities.

1. Think lean. The “lean” philosophy has become a watchword in modern management circles. It seems logical enough: trimming away the fat inevitably increases efficiency and the bottom line. But we still haven’t entirely shaken off outmoded workplace philosophies that allow inefficiency to creep in unchallenged. Recognize this obstacle, then adopt a lean state of mind and apply it to every step of your workflow process. Develop a team-wide culture of efficiency and ruthlessly root out bloat.

2. Take advantage of technology. A scientific breakthrough may make what seemed impossible before suddenly easy, immediately rendering an existing process less efficient. Case in point: in the 1750s, no one could travel overland from Boston to New York (about 225 miles) in less than eight hours. Some said it was impossible to ever do better, since no form of transportation could travel faster than a horse’s sustainable top speed of about 30 mph. Then we invented planes, trains, and automobiles. Today we routinely make the trip in a few hours.

3. Evaluate changes carefully. You can improve almost anything, so you’ll no doubt upgrade every workflow process at some point. But take care here. If you think you’ve found something more efficient, don’t yank up the old method and discard it out of hand. Test the new option first to see if it pans out.

4. Make the tough decisions. True leadership means making decisions that benefit the group as a whole, not the individuals comprising it. Unfortunately, this may sometimes mean more work for everyone…or it may mean lay-offs. Your caretaking tasks require you to make such big decisions sometimes, and to do so as efficiently as possible. Take every factor you can into account but don’t dawdle if it comes down to letting someone go. Better yet, invest the time and resources overhauling a process that will improve overall productivity.

Stoop to Conquer

Just because you’re growing a good crop of profits doesn’t mean your garden patch lacks weeds. When you’re working fertile soil, any plant can thrive. And remember: weeds grow fast and relentlessly; if you let them, they’ll eventually strangle the growing crop. So even if you’ve done well so far, take a good, close look at your workplace. If you see any wasteful processes or strategies—any at all—pull on your gloves, kneel down, and start weeding.