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Simple Ways for Working Smarter Every Day

A friend of mine recently decided to quit his job in the city.  His office was big.  His title was impressive.  His salary was more than enough for him and his family to live on.

What led to his leaving his cozy job?

It wasn't the money nor the responsibilities he had at work.  Rather, it was the soul-sucking nature of living in the burbs and dragging his butt into the city each and every day.

He had had enough.  He hated the commute.  He hated the lack of trees in the city.  He hated the daily obsession with "beating the traffic" to get out of the city.  His workplace was a hotbed of interruption and BS.  After prayer and more than a few long talks with his wife, he decided he was going to leave and pursue something very different.  

He hasn't looked back since.

Jealous?  I was when I first heard and then, with a smile, I congratulated him and admired his bravery.  This guy has guts.

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What Steve realized, long before he quit his job, was that he wasn't actually getting getting that much work done when he was at work.  This led him to resent his job and feel as if there had to be a smarter way to work.

Be honest- how much work do you get done when you're at work?  

I suspect that, if your job is anything like Steve's was, your day is full of any of the following time thieves:

  • commuting to and from work (30-90 minutes)
  • meetings (30-60 minutes)
  • chit-chat (15-30 minutes)
  • lunch (30-60 minutes)

A worse-case scenario could rob you of 150 minutes of your day- that's over two hours!  Add it up and you could be losing over eight hours a week or one full workday- not good.  Tack on to the lost time of 150 minutes is the hard-to-measure moments that evaporated due to distractions and being interrupted.  

That's not ok.

It's exactly why my friend Steve decided that he had had enough.  He's now doing work that allows him to focus, enjoy fewer meetings and work to his strengths.  

If you're tired of these time thieves (as I am!), I suggest the following as an antidote to the problems of the modern workplace:

  1. Attend as few meetings as possible.
  2. Cultivate time, each day, to think deeply and focus, without interruption.  
  3. Find quiet spaces during the day to do work.  
  4. Create a personal workspace that you enjoy and look forward to.
  5. Have as short a commute as possible.
  6. Explore the possibility of working from home, 1-2 days per week.

I'm not saying that it's that simple.  But, it kind of is.  All it takes is a bit of courage and a sense that you're fed up with a work day that keeps you from actually doing your work.

Try any one of these six action-steps this coming week and let me know which one makes a difference in your time management and work.  I'd love to hear from you!

6 Lessons From Working at Home

It's been, more or less, six months since I began working from home.  

In full disclosure, I do have another office that I use occasionally during the week; that is five minutes away.  I also use a local Panera and the town library. All of these locations make up my "office".

Before I started working from home, I would read about people who just loved it.  They raved about the flexibility, the personalization, and the deep productivity it afforded.  It seemed like the way to go.  As an introvert, I've always enjoyed time in quiet spaces so I figured I would give it a try.

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The lessons have been many.  Here are six that stand out:

  1. It's unglamorous.  When no one is around and no one does the old  "got a minute" interruption, it's just you and your work.  At the end of the day, you need to crank work and get things done.  There's nothing sexy about that and you won't get bonus points for wearing a nicer tie.  That's not to say that it's bad, just different.  It's you and your work.
  2. Being able to change your location is magical.  For me, working for three hour blocks of time works well.  I can get in a morning block of work, take lunch, and then get another three hour block of time before dinner.  I suspect that six strong hours of work is way more than I ever got in a traditional office layout.  
  3. You begin to appreciate time.  I track my hours each day.  Even a 15 minute block of time gets put down in the book.  I've realized that, when you work from home, you appreciate what you can get done in a small (or large) block of time.  Before, the parts of the day just blended together.
  4. You realize how much junk fills the day of the average office worker.  I don't have a commute which means that I don't have to  wake up early (although I still do but now it's by choice).  I don't have to add forty minutes to my morning and forty minutes home.  I don't have to spend 15-30 minutes each day with chit-chat.  There are very few interruptions.  As I think back to work in a traditional office space, I realize just how much "stuff" fills the average day and it's not very productive.  
  5. Themed days are a must.  Each of my days is "built" around a particular theme.  Monday is for content creation.  Friday is for administrative tasks.  The days in the middle have their own themes.  Theming is important because it gives structure to your week and gives you a roadmap of what you want to accomplish.  
  6. Most meetings are useless.  I still have meetings but now they are via Skype, Zoom or a conference call.  They have a set time to begin and often end early.  They are pleasant and typically quite effective.  

I'm still figuring this out.  For those who have worked from home for years, I admire your wisdom and hope to keep learning from your experience.  

How about you?  Where do you work best?  Of the six lessons above, do any strike a chord with you?  

7 Signs That Your Workplace is Broken

Just recently, another article was published touting the negative consequences of the famed "open door" policy at work. One feels sort of nostalgic reading this piece as the author defends the return of the traditional door at the entrance to traditional offices.  

Imagine that!

Cal Newport surely believes in the concept of a closed door office as it is more likely a contributor to focused work.  In his book Deep Work, Newport states, 

Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.
— Cal Newport

All of this is to defend the commodity of clear thinking and focused labor.  Safe to say, most of us have forgotten how luxurious those states can be since much of the modern workplace is broken. 

There, I said it- broken as in busted and messed up.

I should know and I'm partly guilty of promoting a broken workplace.  Until recently, I spent much of my career in schedules that were chopped up into bits of time that no human could actually enjoy.  The meetings alone were enough to make you insane.  The open spaces?  Mostly a distraction.

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Open spaces don't promote more collaboration.  They promote a lack of focus and more small talk than you can shake a stick at.  

How do you know if your workplace is broken and in need of fixing?  Here are seven telltale signs: 

  1. The open door policy is king.  Getting work done should be king, not access to talk your ear off.  Yes, we should be cordial but most things don't require that you interrupt someone else.
  2. Meetings abound.  Meetings are necessary but probably fewer than most workplaces allow.  Most meetings can be substituted with an email, memo or brief Skype chat.
  3. People come in on the weekend because that's the only time when you can actually get things done.  You know what I'm talking about with this one and it's got to stop.
  4. The most common phrase is, "You got a minute?"  This implies that whatever you were doing is not as important as the conversation that's about to happen. Not a good sign.
  5. No one around reads your verbal cues that you need to get work done.  A closed door, a head bowed in concentration, a focused look on your face- each should tell someone else that you are trying to work.  Sadly, too many people do not read these important physical cues.
  6. Others walk in on you when you're on a call and expect that you talk to them, right then and there.  This may be the most egregious violation of them all.  
  7. People are tired all of the time.  This is where the real danger shows up as your physical health starts to deteriorate as a result of what may be a broken workplace.  This can't be an acceptable outcome of a distraction-rich environment.

This post is not meant to provide seven simple solutions to the signs listed above.  Rather, it's meant to help you take an inventory of what's around you.

Is your workplace totally broken?

Is it partially broken?

Do you have some colleagues who need to be reminded that you actually have work that needs to get done?

The good news is that you can change each of these signs.  In my experience, I was unable to change my entire workplace culture on my own.  I needed allies around me who bought into the idea of focused work.  Only when people got fed up with interruptions and senseless meetings did they realize that deep work was the holy grail of their productivity.

So You're Distracted at Work: What's the Big Deal?

Most of us feel distracted at work.  Big time.

Whether it’s the inordinate amount of meetings or the myth of the “open door policy”, it’s getting harder and harder to focus.

I once worked with a woman who, without pay, would come in on Saturdays in order to get some peace and quiet (and to finish her work).

A priest friend of mine has the unfortunate situation of having his office just off of the main lobby.  To cope with the people who want to see him ALL THE TIME he just shuts his door when he needs to get work done.  As a complement, he will work from 6-8am when no one is around.

A brave approach but nuts nonetheless!

What have we done to our workplace that good women and men need to come in on Saturdays and work before dawn just to get some quiet space to think.

How about you?  Does your work barrage you with stupid meetings and more interruptions than you can deal with? 

I’m guessing your answer is yes.  It certainly was for me up until a recent job change.  If you’re a leader, it gets exponentially worse as everyone and their brother wants a piece of you, from the moment you step foot at work until you leave.

The bigger question though is this: what’s the big deal?  Come on Mike, so I’m distracted at work… isn’t that just normal?

My answer is part psychological- we have enough distractions in our own heads.  Think of the last time that you sat down to write or read something.  Tons of distractions!

We don’t need our workplaces adding on to that in-our-heads level of stress.

Another part of the answer is this: when we are distracted we don’t give our very best to those we serve.  This is easy to believe if you think of a surgeon.  Not being focused could lead to a snip here or a mistake there.  

Most of us will respond and say, “I’m not a surgeon or a pilot so I can afford a bit of distraction.”

No and no.

The cost of being distracted is huge.  It adds stress to our work.

It tires us out physically.

It lengthens our hours.

It puts stress on those we love.

It saps us of our confidence.

It prevents us from finishing things.

It burns us out.

When you look at it that way, distraction at work is a very big deal.  And, with some courage, now is the time to do something about it.  Unfortunately, the solutions are probably not going to come “from above”.  You and your peers will have to demand change “from below”.

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What might that look like?  I suggest three easy solutions:

1. No meetings prior to 10am.  Imagine if you had your most valuable hours without having to sacrifice them at the altar of meetings?  
2. One day per week without meetings.  This one is easy.  Just ask for one day per week without meetings.  
3. Close your door more often during the day.  Build-up-the-courage-and-close-your-door.  It’s both harder/easier than you think.

Being distracted at work is serious enough to worry about and important enough to challenge.  It will start with you and you can do it.

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For Further Reading

Check out Cal Newport's piece about Facebook's massive office space that's scaring away workers who want to focus.

The Problem with Sameness at Work

Some people can report for work in the morning and crank widgets all day, every day. They don’t mind being in one room for an entire day. They don’t mind sitting all day. They don’t mind things being pretty much the same all day.

I am not one of those people.

This realization came to me only a few years ago. Realizing that variety in the day was important for my sanity and productivity, I employed two strategies:

  1. Working for an hour (or so) in one place and then switching to another location for the next hour.
  2. Building into every week a longer block of time to work outside of the building.

These tactics worked well in order to combat the sameness of working in one office for an entire day.  Strategy two also helped me to know that at least once per week I was focusing on bigger things than just the day to day.

Makes sense right? I mean, who among us really loves (I mean, deeply enjoys) sitting at the same blessed desk all day every day, day after day?  And yet, most people... that's what they do.  They settle for mediocre lighting, poor seating, a desk that they don't love and on and on.

Cause of Sameness at Work #1: The workplace itself.  Most companies treat workers like hamsters who scurry in to work, scurry all day and then scurry home at night.  It's dehumanizing.

Cause of Sameness at Work #2: A lack of courage.  You could probably work in multiple places at work if you wanted to.  It takes courage to say something to your boss.   It takes guts to try and cut down on interruptions (which are a productivity suck).  It takes moxy to decrease the number of meetings you attend.  

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Now that my job is more mobile, flexible and self governed, I can work in my home office for part of the day and my other office for the other part of the day. Or, I can start at a coffee shop and then head to the library. The point is that I have the flexibility to keep it moving, switching my location whenever my energy starts to be depleted, etc.

When you can fight back against the tyranny of sameness, your productivity will soar and you'll be much happier.

How do you combat sameness in your workplace?

Podcast Episode 24: How to Run Effective Meetings

Here is the latest edition of the Emergent Leader Podcast!  In this episode, I talk about one of the most vital skills that every great executive practices: running a meeting.

The problem is that most meetings are absolutely terrible.  They either don't have a clear purpose or end late.  This episode will help to change that. 

I think you'll enjoy this episode of The Emergent Leader podcast!  Whether you are a rising leader in your 20's and 30's or a seasoned executive, this episode will help you improve an executive who has to run meetings.  Enjoy!