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, 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, see

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.

Think Beyond Your Desk: Applying Cross-Functional Thinking to the Workplace

by Laura Stack

“No one can whistle a symphony. It takes an orchestra to play it.” — H.E. Luccock, former Professor of Homiletics at Yale Divinity School.

In 1988, the great Peter Drucker predicted in a famous article, “The Coming of the New Organization,” that most organizations would have embraced cross-functionality within 20 years. In contrast to the purely functional ethic defined by Adam Smith and Frederick Taylor, businesses would more readily coordinate and share tasks across all levels, increasing response time for the customer’s benefit.

As visionary as he was, Drucker missed the boat here. While most business schools do emphasize the cross-functional approach nowadays, relatively few real-world organizations practice it in any significant way.

Indeed, corporate training often teaches the exact opposite, and most leaders accept team-first functionality as the norm. So despite paying lip service to organizational mission and vision, modern business structure encourages leaders to carve out individual fiefdoms rather than to integrate seamlessly across departments.

Hence informational silos, turf wars, internal sniping, and all the other obstacles that make corporate life such an adventure. Well, rather than letting those things hold your team and ultimately your organization back, try to SEARCH for ways to better align your team efforts with overallorganizational objectives.

Here are some ideas:

1. Share. Information silos, whether deliberate or resulting from incompatible systems, plague modern business and probably cost us billions per year. Make sincere efforts to communicate laterally across teams and departments. Open up those silos, so the grain spills out to all who need it.

2. Empathize. Have you become so focused on your team’s needs you’ve lost track of the organization’s overall goals? Stop and think about the needs of other groups, and consider how much more you and your co-leaders might accomplish if you actively attempted to help each other. Think about how any action or decision will impact another and have conversation around it before you pull the trigger.

3. Appreciate. Instead of belittling HR or subcontracting for how little their accomplishments matter compared to yours, try to understand and appreciate their existence. The org chart includes them for a reason, even if it isn’t obvious to you. Consider the pancreas in the human body, which doesn’t seem important at first glance; yet if just a few cells within it stop producing insulin, diabetes strikes. It’s kind of a yucky analogy, but that odd department you’ve never really understood may just be the pancreas of your organization.

4. Respect. Once you’ve taken the time to understand and appreciate other teams, learn to respect what they do. Reach out and connect with them, so you can better serve each other. Whenever feasible, attend their big meetings, so you can acquire better knowledge of their inner workings and needs. Find ways you can reduce redundancy or save them time.

5. Change. Mutually beneficial relationships founded on sharing, respect, and appreciation drive cross-functional thinking, which in turn drive organizational flexibility and a better bottom line. So do everything in your power to encourage a shift to cross-functional thinking. Emphasize how moving forward with a more holistic strategy is in everyone’s best interest.

6. Heal. Sure, the old-school functional methodology gets you by—the same way a crutch does when you have a broken a leg. Isn’t it better to have two healthy legs than to keep limping along? Functional thinking is prone to brittle self-absorption, causing breaks across the organizational structure. Open, honest cross-functionality helps reset those breaks so you can all move forward more easily.

The Yellow Brick Road

At some point, you’ll hit a fork in your organizational path. You could keep following the well-travelled dirt road of functionality, but doesn’t it make more sense to take the yellow brick road to a cross-functional future? After all, those yellow bricks may be made of gold. The cross-fertilization and new viewpoints that emerge from true teamwork can prove insanely profitable. So stop wasting your team’s potential to achieve greatness and unleash cross-functional thinking in your working life!

Why Are You Here, Anyway?

by Laura Stack

Fit no stereotypes. Don’t chase the latest management fads. The situation dictates which approach best accomplishes the team’s mission.” — Former U.S. Secretary of State and four-star General.

Why am I here? In addition to being one of the great mysteries of human existence, this question is one of the most important ones you can ask yourself, especially when you contemplate your job. It’s an exercise that should be undertaken regularly. Why do you occupy this particular box in your workplace’s org chart? What do your superiors expect you to accomplish? What is your personal return on investment? What value do you bring to the company?

If you have no real reason for working other than your need to occupy yourself or provide for your family, then you’ve lost sight of your workplace mission. These may represent noble goals, but actualworkplace productivity depends on an intimate knowledge of your organization’s strategic goals and your plan for contributing to it.

Most organizations, from Bubba’s Bait Shop to Ford Motor Company, have an underlying mission driving them toward their goals. A mission generally consists of a brief, straightforward statement of the organization’s primary objectives or bottom-line goals. For example, Bubba’s could be, “To sell the best fishing worms in the Greater Tuna area.” Ford’s could be, “To make the safest cars for the best prices in the U.S.A.”

What is you’re your organization’s mission? Do you know, and do you care anymore? If the answer to either question is “no,” then implement my 4-R Reconnection Strategy to align with your workplace mission—while you still have one!

REESTABLISH communication. Evaluate your current position by asking yourself, “What are the 20% of my activities that contribute 80% of my value to my organization?” If you find yourself groping uncertainly in the fog to answer that question, invest some personal time figuring out how you got off course and how to fix it. Get out the radar and start pinging away until you relocate that all-important mission of your organization. Awareness is the first key to progress.

REALIGN yourself. Now make sure the mission and your perception of it still match up. If you’ve become misaligned—even through no fault of your own—you may be wasting time on the wrong goals. If so, it doesn’t matter how hard you work to get the job done if you’re spending time on the wrong things. So recheck with your boss regularly to confirm your critical priorities.

REPAIR your connection. Now that you know where you are and where you should be, make any necessary course corrections. Tweak or even overhaul your personal and/or team workflow process to get it back on track and into sync with the mission. Have your team members make a list of the top five things they think they should be working on, and you do the same for each person. Compare the two lists. Are they the same? Constantly refocus their and your key tasks, which should be reflected in how your calendar plays out.

REDEDICATE yourself to the mission. Reaffirm your commitment to your workplace. Work to fully understand how you and your team contribute to the collective effort to move the organization forward. Whether your contributions prove integral or incremental, make sure thatwhat you’re doing is exactly what you should be doing to achieve the long-term strategic objectives of your organization.

At the professional level, almost isn’t good enough. Even if you work harder and longer than other leaders in your company, if you’ve lost track of the mission, your workplace productivity will inevitably crash and burn. So look up regularly, check your instruments to see how you’re doing—and reorient yourself if you’ve lost your mission lock.

Clarity of Outcomes: Clear the Air Before You Commit

by Laura Stack

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision on what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out and meet it.” — Thucydides, ancient Greek historian

Clear, practical decision-making represents one of the hallmarks of the competent professional…though sadly, the commodity seems in shorter supply than it should be. People often make decisions reflexively, without sufficient data to understand the potential repercussions. Oh, sometimes they hit the bull’s-eye through sheer luck. But since when was business a game of chance?

You have to be able to see your target to hit it consistently, which makes clarity of outcomes your #1 goal in any decision-making process. Never blindly assume you understand what will happen if you do this as opposed to that. Give it some deep thought, leveraging not just your experience and intimate knowledge of your marketplace, but also any other research and information that might impact the outcome.

Obviously you can’t know in advance everything that might divert a decision. An unexpected gust of technological innovation might throw your aim off, or some uncontrollable event could shift the target after you’ve pulled the decision trigger. But by now you’ve surely realized motion beats meditation, as long as you have sufficient facts and resources on hand. Here are a few ways to go about it.

1. Research the variables. If you have experience dealing with a particular issue and know for sure the boundary conditions haven’t changed, then you can proceed with your decision-making confidently. However, if you’ve never dealt with anything like the issue at hand, or if conditions have changed, then invest some time in basic research. If you lack the time to do it yourself, assign it to one of your direct reports.

2. Never make unwarranted assumptions. If a friend asks you how long it will take to climb a mountain, don’t assume he means Pike Peak. He might mean Denali. Know for sure what he wants before proceeding.

3. Set a deadline for action. Once you’ve settled the previous factors, set a drop-dead date for your decision. Announce it to others, so their expectations will force you to work steadily toward it. Otherwise it might sneak up on you, forcing a poor choice.

4. Start Planning. Develop a better understanding of the issue, determining from there how the project contributes to and aligns with your organizational goals. Convene meetings to discuss all the angles, being frugal with your time and limiting attendance to contributing individuals. Conduct outside consultations as necessary. Design and undertake these actions with one goal in mind: to clarify the outcome of every (reasonable) decision and to determine which best benefits your organization.

Once you’ve covered the major factors, make your decision and move forward without letting the devilish details hold you back. As long as you remain flexible, you can handle them as you go. You’ll never foresee everything, and you might make the wrong move even after you’ve done your due diligence. But all business boils down to calculated risk, after all. If pressed, make the best decision you can, even if you’re not quite ready. You can always make course corrections later.

To use a delightful old-fashioned phrase, you “pays your money” and you “takes your chances.” But before you pay, at least make sure you know what you’re looking at.

Five Ways to Bounce Back When You Drop the Ball!

by Laura Stack

No matter how far life pushes you down, no matter how much you hurt, you can always bounce back.” — Sheryl Swoopes, American professional basketball player.

Success is how high you bounce when you hit the bottom.“– George F. Patton, U.S. Army general during World Wars I and II.

You’ve never made a single mistake in your entire career—right?

As much as we hate to admit it, we’re only human, and perfection lies only in the realm of the Divine. We are high-performing individuals, certainly, but still just flesh and bone, and occasionally we drop the ball. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone, since we often juggle five or ten of them at once.

Fortunately, balls tend to bounce; so when you drop a ball and it bounces back at you, grab it up and rebound yourself. Use these five tips to help you get everything back in play.



Five Ways to Bounce Back When You Drop the Ball!  by Laura Stack - Stop and Think

Stop and think. When you realize you’ve made a mistake, don’t freak out. Step away for a while to ponder the situation and decide what to do about it. Take a deep breath and calm yourself. Don’t let emotion overwhelm you or rule your actions, or you might follow up your first mistake with another, possibly worse one.

Face the music. Don’t try to make excuses or otherwise duck responsibility for your blunder, even if owning up threatens your job. If you were indeed at fault, apologize to all those affected by your mistake, whatever your level of error—whether you just forgot about a meeting or accidentally sank an important account. Do so sincerely, because copping an attitude or feigning regret just generates more ill will. On the other hand, don’t over-apologize and act weak. It helps no one and irritates most people.

Try to compensate. If your slip-up was especially severe, sit down and brainstorm some ideas that might help you correct or offset the error. Then present them to your supervisor in a personal meeting. Even if nothing proves practical or acceptable, at least others will understand you regret your mistake and genuinely want to make amends. Be willing to accept reasonable disciplinary action as well. All this just might save your job, especially if you otherwise have an exemplary record.

Look for the bright side. You’ve heard the homilies: “Every cloud has its silver lining.” “It’s an ill wind that blows no good.” Since so many old sayings apply to such occasions, people have obviously been screwing up big-time for centuries. But this long experience also proves that most negative events usually have some positive effect. At the very least, you’ll know how to avoid the mistake in the future. And you’ll gain a little humility in the process.

Forgive yourself. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Yes, you made a mistake. But don’t sit there brooding, damaging your personal productivity even further. Get over it and rebound! Once you’ve repaired your error and learned your lesson, move on confidently to your next adventure.

To Err is Human

We all foul up sometimes; human nature makes it inevitable. While you shouldn’t casually shrug off your workplace goofs, don’t let them ruin your life either. Self-recrimination gets you nowhere. Even if you’ve done something spectacularly bad, even if you suspect (or know) you’ve set back your career, follow the advice of the old High Hopes ant chant: pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again!

High Performer or Average Worker? How Can You Quickly Tell?

by Laura Stack

“The best in every business do what they have learned to do without questioning their abilities—they flat out trust their skills.” — John Eliot, American author of Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance.

Adding a new person to your workplace team is always a gamble. Usually you can’t tell, just by looking, who will consistently deliver top-notch performance that makes the entire team shine…and who will just show up, do an average job, and fade into the woodwork.

To clarify, “average” does not mean “bad.” Average people define the norm and provide the benchmarks by which we recognize high performance. They do their jobs adequately when properly directed, and you can depend on them in most things. But you build your team aroundhigh performers—the “quantum leapers”—who achieve up to ten times greater impact and results than the average worker. Slow and steady may win the race, but sometimes you need to hitch yourself to a star to make real progress. How can you see this star quality?

Good on Paper. A candidate’s “paper trail” offers clues about their performance ability. Did they graduate college summa cum laude with a double major? Good—that suggests an overachiever. If they’ve quickly risen through the ranks at previous jobs and have a stellar performance record, then you may have a winner on your hands. But you can’t always rule out a personality or attitude change since that last glowing performance review.

The Yoda Attitude. Yoda, the little green Jedi master, once told Luke Skywalker: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Look for this attitude during your face-time with the candidate. High performers confront workplace challenges head-on, applying their experience and creativity to craft tailored solutions that get the job done. So ask your candidate what they would do in certain hypothetical situations, noting how well and how quickly they can construct a reasonable solution.

Sharp, Well-Defined Goals. A high performer has no problem citing his or her goals, both short- and long-term. They can present those goals neatly and quickly, with a solid understanding of the steps required to get there. They understand how to translate goals into action.

Ambition. High performers push themselves to get ahead. These high-energy self-starters radiate confidence, need no one else to motivate them, and maintain a clear sense of direction. They “keep on keeping on” until they get what they want and hit the targets.

Excellent Time Management Skills. High performance burnout can be a big problem. Ambition, solid goals, and a can-do attitude matter very little if a worker can’t juggle time with the best of them. To do you proud for years to come, high performers understand the basics of time management well enough to create a work/life balance that maximizes their personal productivity without exhausting themselves. Working long and working productively aren’t the same thing, so you’ll have to dig deep to see if the person possesses this skill set.

The Bottom Line

You’ve probably experienced the occasional pleasant surprise when someone you’ve written off as average suddenly rises to the top of the performance ladder. Similarly, you may have suffered disappointment at the hands of a “sure thing.” Ultimately, performance matters, not appearance, so take care not to mistake style for substance. Search for the five characteristics outlined above before you assume you have a firecracker on your hands. “Masters of Disguise” who depend on their winning personalities to get them onboard usually can’t hide their weaknesses well enough to evade careful scrutiny. True high performers exhibit a fearless, ambitious, action-oriented—and above all else—results-oriented approach that no one can easily fake.

Top Ten Things to Do Before Ten to Ensure a Productive Day

by Laura Stack

“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” — Benjamin Franklin, U.S. publisher and Founding Father.

“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” — Mark Twain, American humorist

Whether you achieve full alertness within minutes of waking up or require a caffeine infusion before you can think straight (like me), the early morning hours represent a crucial productivity period. What you accomplish in the first few hours after rising can set the tone for your entire day’s productivity at work.

New research into sleep habits emphasizes the value of early-morning productivity. According to a recent study in the journal Emotion, early risers tend to be healthier and happier than night owls—probably because society at large caters to day-workers much better than it does to the nocturnal.

So which would you prefer to be: a dour dweller of the dark, or a chipper early riser? When considered from a personal productivity standpoint, the answer’s obvious. Cheerful people tend to be more productive than unhappy ones, and the same goes for those who come into work the earliest. No mystery there: you can get a lot done when you face fewer external distractions.

Recently, I was thinking about all the things I tend to accomplish before that inevitable slide down the productivity hill after lunch. I jotted down a list of ten items I achieved by 10 AM that day. I thought it might be helpful to share it with you:

  • I wrote a HIT list the evening before. That way, I could jump right in as soon as I got to work.
  • I got eight hours of sleep. You can’t maximize your personal productivity if you can’t keep your eyes open.
  • I jumped right out of bed. No snooze button for me!
  • I exercised. It helps me wake up, and keeps me healthy and energetic.
  • I ate breakfast. You’ve got to feed the machine, so you have enough energy to keep going until lunchtime.
  • I did my morning ritual. I took a shower, prayed, and drank coffee over the news.
  • I arrived at work on time. I want to maximize my productivity, so I don’t drag my heels when it’s time face my professional responsibilities.
  • I checked in with my staff on the day’s priorities.This helped let me triage my task list, adjust my schedule, and determine what I needed to do first.
  • I completed my most important task. I narrowed my focus to laser sharpness and got to work. Before long, I’d “eaten my biggest frog.”
  • I cleared my email. Email represents my primary means of communicating with clients, colleagues, and staff. But if you let it, email can devour the most productive parts of your day. So I eliminated this distraction quickly and turned to more important matters. I didn’t check it again until late in the day.

Now that you’ve seen a typical example of my list of “top ten before ten,” what would yours look like? I’m always looking to fine-tune my day! If you don’t already use the method, try it a few times. See if you actually get more done in the morning. Once you understand that, it may help you pump up the volume on your workplace productivity.