Posts in GTD
What to do When You Are Distracted at Work

It's one thing if you work in a distraction-rich environment and it has to be that way.  I’m thinking of an emergency room, a grocery store, or a trading floor.  

My wife works in an office like this- she's the go-to person for  the rest of the staff.  Without her being available to help the team around her, they can't do their jobs.

I suppose some workplaces have to be that way.  When I was managing a large team, at least a third of my day was reserved for the team, ready to assist with whatever they needed.

It’s the other work environments that I’d like to discuss in this post.  These workplaces are filled with people who are expected to get things done.  Their supervisors want results and they expect top performers to figure out how to get their work done.

The only catch is that most workplaces make it near impossible to focus.  

Focus… it’s the new gold of the modern workforce.  Capture it often enough and you’ll become truly productive. 

Did I mention that your boss will love you?  At the end of the day, it's not about how big your heart is or how high you scored on your SAT.  

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It's about producing results.   

My wife and I talk often about how workplaces can be counterintuitive to those people who want to produce results.  Let that sink in- the places we go to work are often the least productive places.  We spend a lot of money to furnish offices and they become the last place we actually want to work.

It's stunning when you think about it.  The modern day workplace is broken.  Jason Fried of 37 Signals has been talking about this for years.  Cal Newport  is preaching the new currency for top performers- the ability to focus.  Same with Shawn Blanc who even has a course called, wait for it, The Focus Course.

I think you see where we are going with this...

If you’ve ever savored the quiet of a Saturday morning at work when no one else is around, you know what I’m talking about.  There's something magical about getting into the zone for an hour or two.  When you pick your head up from your work, you smile because you just kicked ass and drop-kicked your work.  

Being in the zone feels like that.  Time goes quickly. Nothing else matters.  It's just you and your work.  

So let's presume that you want to get into this state more often than you currently experience... I know that I do.

This of course is hindered by distractions and interruptions.

Distractions are evident if:

  • you wonder at the end of the day if you got any work done
  • you’re more tired than you ought to be
  • your boss is giving you a hard time because your projects aren’t getting done
  • you dread going to meetings because you know that they pull you away from the work that you already have

And on and on…

It’s one thing to acknowledge that you have distractions at work- we all do.  As I see it, there are two follow up questions that are critical in order to get over this problem:

1. Does my workplace have an inordinate amount of interruptions and senseless meetings?
2. If it does, what can I do about it?

The second question is really important because here is where true agency occurs.  In other words, dealing with distractions just might become your personal superpower.  

I wrote about this in How to Reset Your Day.  The ninja skill is to sense that you’re distracted in the moment and then respond accordingly.

If you’re familiar with Getting Things Done, this is similar to having a “mind like water”, or acting appropriately to what your day is presenting.  

How can you respond when you recognize a lack of focus?  Here are just a few ways to get back on the horse:

1. Get up from your desk and take a brief five minute break.
2. Drink some water.
3. Close all windows on your computer except for the one that you’re working on.
4. Clean everything off your desk that is not related to what you are doing right now.
5. Change your working space.  
This is a trick I’ve been using lately, alternating between my home desk and my office desk in another building five minutes away.  It will feel odd at first but trust me, this works like gold.

You probably can’t control every distraction at work.  You probably can respond accordingly and then reset your focus.  That little act might change your day, your week and the trajectory of your career.

Part 5 of 5: Control Your Calendar

This is part of the series entitled, The Four Skills Every Executive Needs to Practice

In the introduction to this series, we made the case that grad school programs and most organizations don't teaching rising leaders the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

In Part 2, we discussed the importance of managing your email daily.

In Part 3, I taught a better way to run meetings

In Part 4, we talked about the ways that executives need to synthesize large volumes of information.

In this post, the last of the series, we wrap it up but not before we deal with the final skill: control your calendar.

I once worked with a wonderful woman who would listen to anyone's problems and offer sage advice.

The only problem was that her entire day would be caught up with person after person who wanted to sit and chat. And, you know what happens when someone sits down- they stay down for a bit longer than is really needed.  A five minute chat can quickly turn into 

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My friend's entire day (and week) would thus be consumed with the priorities of others. Instead of being "master and commander" of her own week, she operated at the whim of those around her.

That spells disaster for any executive.

Why? Quite simply, your boss doesn't care about the priorities of others. He or she only cares that you carry out your most important tasks.

So how do you avoid the situation that my friend found herself in and control your own calendar? I suggest three strategies:

If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.
— David Allen
  1. Use one calendar. Whether it's the old-fashioned print version or Google Calendar, it must be used. If you have multiple calendars (I.e. Family, work, civic duties), make sure that they all find their way onto or into your one total calendar. This strategy may seem simple because it is. The problem is that too many people keep their appointments in their head rather than on a calendar.
  2. Use one digital task manager. The second strategy is related to the first except that it deals with your many "todo" items. Just as you will place all calendar items on your calendar, the second strategy calls for the countless little todo's into one digital task manager. I've used OmniFocus and it's great. My current task manager of choice if Nozbe (full disclosure: affiliate link). A digital task manager is critical because it will clear your head with every small item you pop into your task manager. You'll have more peace of mind because you won't be constantly thinking about what you need to do. Your task manager will do that for you.
  3. Theme your week. This final strategy is where the best executives excel. By theming your week, you actually trick your brain into knowing what your day will basically be filled with. For me, this looks like the following:
    • Monday: Personal (I conduct 4 one-on-one meetings)
    • Tuesday: People (We have our two staff meetings)
    • Wednesday: Populous (Out and about day)
    • Thursday: Planning (Taking time off-campus to look at the top priorities)
    • Friday: Prep (Getting ready for the next week)

By practicing these three, simple strategies, you will gradually take control of your calendar. This is the final skill that will nudge your productivity over the top.

Did you enjoy this five part series?  You may want to subscribe to my mailing list and receive the eBook, "The 6 Fastest Ways to Supercharge Your Career".

Time to Stop Listening to Experts

I once had a friend who loved a particular saint. She read her books, prayed her prayers and in general, modeled her life after the saint.

Until it stopped working.

She realized that she was better off finding her own way. Years later when I asked her if she was still into the saint, she said quite remarkably, “I actually think that the saint sort of messed me up.”

All those years, she spent trying to be exactly like the saint only to find that she was uniquely gifted in ways the saint couldn't touch.  For example, while the saint was mousy and mild-mannered, my friend realized that she had a playful side that made others feel welcome.

My friend is like most of us I suppose- we like experts. They have authority. They are popular. Their voice seems to be “louder than words”.

The catch, of course, is that your voice (mine too) is as loud as you want for it to be. Volume is not what we are looking for. Rather, it's depth we are after.

These days, I'm reading Todd Henry's "Louder Than Words". One of his key points is this: find your own voice over time and then polish its edges.  Says Henry, “You need to create space for your creative process to thrive rather than expect it to operate in the cracks of your frenetic schedule.” The fact is that:

  • No expert can provide a perfect path.
  • No expert knows you exactly like God (and your friends do) does.
  • No expert cares enough to talk with you regularly.
  • Some experts aren't really experts at all. 
  • Some experts' experience is so wildly different from yours that following them might be a waste of time. 

I'm not opposed to learning from others but I've seen too many "experts" whose advice just isn't helpful to regular folk.  My preference would be to listen and learn from mentors.  Mentors have a vested interest in you and they care.  They typically have accumulated wisdom that can be unpacked through their relationship with you.  That's powerful.

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Through mentors, we can be reminded why we do what we do.  This is one reason why the GTD weekly review is so important.  A weekly review tells us what's on our plate and how we can organize our priorities.  Most experts can't do that.  They just make us feel bad that we're not more like them.

For me, I am a school leader. My colleagues, each astounding, teach me how to be a better person. Occasionally, I provide something of value to them. Our students? Simply extraordinary in every way. They too help me to find my leadership voice.

Who is helping you find your professional voice at this stage of your career?

New Podcast with David Allen

What do you ask someone who has been interviewed hundreds of times? 

That was the question I asked as Nancy (my cohost) and I prepared to interview David Allen, author of Getting Things Done.  I didn't want it to be just another interview with the same old questions being asked and the same result- a predictable interview.

The result: something different.

I think you'll enjoy this podcast interview we did with David.  We talked about parenting, school, information overload and of course, productivity.  David was down to earth, direct and inspiring.  We also got a sneak-peak at the new edition of Getting Things Done which debuts in March of 2015.

It was so much fun and I can't wait to share it with you so sit back and have a listen.  Jump below the podcast button for some of my past blog posts on GTD.

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The Seven Signs of a Productive Person

If you've ever interviewed someone for a job, you probably found yourself wondering if the candidate is genuinely productive.  You might even ask yourself:

  • Does she clear out her email regularly?
  • Does he maintain a neat workspace?
  • Do coworkers rely on her to "get the job done"?

I recently interviewed a number of highly qualified applicants and then checked references.  In each call, I wanted to get a sense of two critical factors:  fit and competency.  In other words, would they mesh with the cultural atmosphere of our workplace?  And, just as importantly, can they get the job done?  While I always factor in like-ability (are they likable?), it always seems to come back to both fit and competency.  

In my work at school, character and values play an important role as well.  These additional qualities will vary depending on your industry, etc.

In all of the interviews (and after years of hiring quality folks), I've found the following as signs of productive people:

  1. They write things down.  In meetings.  During the day.  You get the point.
  2. They come prepared.  They are rarely late and have the tools they need.
  3. They do what they say.  You never have to wonder if they will do what they said they would.
  4. They follow up after meetings.  You get their personal notes and emails as tokens of their follow up.  (I wrote about the value of personal notes here.)
  5. They maintain a neat workspace.  Not perfectly neat but tidy and professional.  
  6. They prepare better than the next guy.  They want to be ready for the workday and for the events that matter most.  They take five minutes to get ready, etc.
  7. They maintain an achiever mindset.  They enjoy accomplishing things- big and small.  

While these are just seven signs that I can think of, there are probably more.  Note that I didn't list any ephemeral qualities like passion, humility, character or even vision. Each of these is definitely important but the seven habits (or signs) are all doable and can be practiced by anyone and everyone.  None is dependent on an IQ of 130 or higher.  Not one requires a lot of money.  No new iPhone model is necessary for any of the signs listed.  (that's a relief since my contract isn't up!)

Look around you at work, in your church, and in your neighborhood.  Who is the productive one who is always on the move and getting things done?  Chances are, they are probably practicing more than a few of the signs mentioned above.

Question: which of the seven signs do you practice regularly?  Which can you improve on?

Photo courtesy of fdp.

Podcast 18: Interview with Michael Sliwinski, Founder of Nozbe
In this cast I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Sliwinski, the founder of Nozbe which is one of the most versatile productivity applications on the market.  Michael joined us while on a work-related trip in Spain.  In this cast, he shared the origins of Nozbe as well as how his Catholic faith finds a home in his daily world of work.

We use Nozbe at work and it has made a world of difference in how we tackle projects.  We intend to roll it out to students and teachers as well within the next year.  Michael has been generous enough to allow such an endeavor and he's a gentleman and a smart businessman.  He is also a man of strong faith and it shows in how his company responds to customer service needs and inquiries.

Michael's blog can be found here and to try out Nozbe as a productivity tool, click here.

Enjoy the cast!