Posts in Time Management
Why Is It So Hard to Work ... at Work?

Working at work is hard.  

The distractions, interruptions, poor lighting, climate control, and constant meeting schedule make it hard to work when you're at work.

I'm mindful of Jason Fried's Ted Talk from 2010 which first caught my eye.  In the years since it went viral, it became a reality for me.  Here's the video in case you haven't seen it in a while:

There are likely two options for people with whom Jason's talk strikes a chord:

a) Fix what you can of your current working environment.
b) Find another situation that allows you to work remotely, even if it's only for a portion of your week.

Which can you choose?  Which will you have the courage to choose?

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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?  

How to Go Deeper
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Summer is the perfect time for extended reading.  For some reason, we feel as if we have "permission" to read when we are on vacation or have a more relaxed schedule at work.   

My summer reading list includes Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.  It reminds me of Essentialism by Greg McEown.   Deep Work is resonating with me on, no pun intended here, a deep level.  

His point is this: to do work of significance, you must strip away the trivial tasks that our world loves.   These are the shallow tasks that are probably not that important.  

These shallow tasks can include filling your day with email, social media, gossip, cubicle chatter, unnecessary phone calls, and anything else that's taking you away from what's essential.  Did I mention interruptions?  In place of these, it's vital to carve out prolonged periods of focused work, "deep work", where you can be alone with your thoughts and have permission to do the most important tasks.

I'm going back to my reading... What about you?  What are you reading this summer that is striking a chord with your life? 

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!

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".

Part 3 of 5: Run Effective Meetings

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This is Part 3 of 5 in the series, "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 this post, I'd like to discuss the second ninja skill of workplace leadership and it deals with meetings.

The average executive spends a lot of time in meetings. These can be any of the following:

1. Informational meetings

2. Status reports

3. Brainstorm meetings

4. One-on-Ones with your boss or those who report to you

5. Standing meetings with those two steps above or below you

6. Strategy meetings

7. Board meetings

8. And on it goes!

The volume of meetings isn't necessarily the problem, although attending too many can definitely constipated your calendar.

No, the real problem is that meetings as we know it suffer from a number of serious ailments. These include:

1. Not having a clear purpose: "what's the reason for this meeting?"

2. Not having a good moderator: "who's running the show here?"

3. Not having an agenda: "what do we want to get done in this meeting?"

4. Not having a set end-time: "what time do we finish?"

To make it worse, too many organizations foster a culture that warps the mindset of its workers. This results in either a) people dread meetings or b) people feel that meetings are the only way to make decisions.

To respond to a), how can you blame them? When the last few meetings either started late or had no clear purpose, who wouldn't want to avoid the next meeting?

Regarding b), this is more insidious. If "having a meeting" is the only way to make decisions, it will ultimately produce sub-par results. Why? Simply put, when you craft a lousy meeting, lousy stuff is bound to come out. This then brings the entire organzation into a slower mode of productivity and it saps the creative energies out of its employees.

So what's a rising leader to do?

First, a personal story. I recently was invited to attend a meeting. Some of my best directs were to be in attendance. The topic, though, really didn't apply to me so I simply didn't attend. After the meeting, my #2 just gave me the cliff-notes version of what went on and the rest is history.

The bottom line leads me to Strategy One: only attend the meetings that you absolutely have to. I realize that if you're not a supervisor or "the boss", you may have less flexibility than others but the principle is the same. You've got to guard your calendar at all costs against lousy meetings.

Strategy Two is directly related to you when you are asked to facilitate a meeting. If you have to run a meeting, do it well.  My suggestion is to address the items that we mentioned above, one at a time:

1. Have a clear purpose: "the reason why we're here is ______________________"

2. Practice good moderation: keep it moving, start on time, involve everyone, clarify follow up tasks, take notes, publish follow up minutes, get out on time.

3. Have an agenda: you may or may not need to publish this in advance. If it's a small group, you could simply start with, "First we want to discuss X and then move to Y and finish with Z. Then we'll know that we're done and can get back to work."

4. Have a set end-time: you'll need to remind folks of the guardrails of the meeting, giving them permission to end on time (or better yet, end early!). Attendees need to know that the meeting will probably only "need" 15 minutes or 30 minutes, etc. 99% of meetings should last 30-45 minutes.

By practicing these two simply strategies, you'll become a meeting ninja and be seen by those above you as efficient and productive.

Here's a bonus tip: when the meeting is over and you are the facilitator, simply stand up and thank everyone for coming. This signals to the group that "we're done" and can get back to whatever is on the calendar. This will feel rude at first but after a while, folks will learn that meetings don't have to be long. Try it out and see for yourself.