Archive for the ‘Following Through’ Category

Why Tasks Hang On – Three Productivity Traps to Avoid

Gum tree seed pods stick; your tasks don't have to. (photo by M. Lukens)

Take a look at your to-do list. Are there things that have been lurking there for weeks, maybe months? How do you feel when you think of those tenacious tasks? Tired? Discouraged?

You can get rid of those “Velcro jobs” faster if you know how they got to be clinging to your days in the first place.

There are three common reasons that tasks hang on.

1. As my father said, “You can always think of more things to do in a day than you can get done.” Expecting yourself to accomplish everything that enters your mind just isn’t realistic.

To avoid this trap, observe how long various tasks actually take. Try scheduling tasks in your calendar to give yourself a more realistic benchmark. If I have 10 hours of work to do, but only six hours available, something is going to go undone, at least for today. Recognize that on days when your calendar is full of appointments, you probably won’t be able to accomplish a lot of other work. Be realistic in your expectations.

And if a task is non-essential, give it an expiration date. This prevents jobs from dragging on indefinitely.

As the philosopher William James observed, “there is nothing more fatiguing than the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.”

I find that because I dream up new ideas nearly every day, I often have assigned more jobs to myself than I could ever possibly finish. If I haven’t written that non-essential proposal or made that call within the deadline, I’ve learned to delete it. If it’s really important to me, it will come back again. For now, I’ll actually be more productive if I just let it go.

2. In his book The Procrastinator’s Digest, a Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, Timothy Pychyl, PhD defines procrastination as “a needless voluntary delay.” Procrastination is a terrible productivity trap that keeps tasks hanging on, usually the least pleasant ones.

One strategy Dr. Pychyl recommends for moving past procrastination is to understand the costs of our procrastination and the benefits of acting without delay. Each day, do the least palatable job first. Then, the rest of the day looks brighter, and you are unburdened by the costs of procrastination on those unpleasant jobs.

3. If your goals and objectives aren’t clear, there’s no good way to know which tasks are most important. When everything looks like it has equal weight, important things are bound to drag on.

As I teach in my Plan to Thrive workshop, the solution is to make a clear and compelling plan that really suits you and your business.  This will help you sort out the really essential jobs from the “nice-to-have” ones.

Did you know that people routinely over-estimate what they can accomplish in one year, and also wildly under-estimate what they can do in three to five years? Think about it: if you’re like most people, what you’re doing today is something you could hardly have dreamed of just a few years ago. A clear and compelling plan can help you to be both realistic and ambitious about the tasks you really want to accomplish.

What do you want to brush off your task list? Declare it by leaving a comment here.

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Update: In-box zero

Back in June I pledged to achieve in-box zero by the first day of autumn, so I owe you, dear readers, an update.

How did I do? In a word: busted.

I managed to keep up with most everything that came in during the past three months, but the backlog is a mere 10 percent smaller than it was. My 500+ message in-box has been whittled to just under 450.

Two points need to be made as I consider my failure to live up to my plan. First (and I think it was Merlin Mann who first said this), before you get good, you have to stop sucking. I did succeed in not sucking. I kept up with incoming mail. That alone is a habit worth latching onto and nurturing for all its worth.

Second, to be fair I had some dire family issues that intervened. Entrepreneurs need to be good bosses to themselves, remembering that we must sometimes cut ourselves some slack. I had some understandable reasons for missing my goal.

So, what have I learned so far?

  • In-box zero is an illusive goal. It’s really hard to get there and stay there.
  • Even in tough times, I did better than stay even. I made progress. Good for me.
  • I really want to reach this goal. I will keep working at it.

The modern work world throws more stuff at us than we can comfortably handle. Those of us who experiment with new ideas in organization and distill others’ productivity prescriptions down for your easy digestion, we’ll continue to seek new ways for all of us to keep up with what really matters and let go of what isn’t important.

Have you tried to achieve an empty email in-box? Tell me about it. And if you’ve found a brilliant way to make it happen, definitely tell me about it. There are thousands of us who are dying to know!

Worth Repeating – July posts from New Leaf News

photo by Margaret Lukens

I’m sharing a few posts from the New Leaf archives. Here’s what was on our mind in Julys past.

How can you make progress on a goal that, for lack of a “natural” deadline, seem to take a back seat to everything else? Here are a couple of ideas to help you get it done.

In good economic times and bad, it always pays to be respectful of your most firmly limited resource,  time. Are you saving a little money but squandering your time?

Abraham Lincoln provides a timely and timeless hope for Independence Day and every day.

In-Box Zero

Remember merit badges, those embroidered circles used to mark achievement for Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts? Now there is a company that makes merits badges for grown-ups, and there’s one I desperately want to earn: In-Box Zero.

My goal of an empty email in-box is more elusive than live tech support. I crossed into the new year on 1/1/10 with an empty in-box and a zero credit card balance. The credit cards are still paid off, but the in-box currently houses over 500 messages.

I know what’s there. It’s not that I haven’t taken in the content of those 500 messages; I have. Some are offers I wanted to think about, like a class I wanted to attend but wasn’t sure I’d have time for. (I didn’t.) Some are newsletters I haven’t read (and probably never will.) Some are threads of complicated conversations involving several people, conversations in which I am not an active participant but was copied on the messages because someone thought I might be able to contribute or might need to know.

I receive between 80 and 100 emails each day, which based on my non-scientific observations of business people, is about average. I deal promptly with the vast majority. I respond and delete, or I file for later action, or I file for reference. Still, that 3 or 4 percent that I don’t move out of the inbox immediately begins to accumulate, until by mid-year I’m looking at a 500-message surplus. A quick calculation indicated that if I could deal with just three more messages each day, I could have kept the message count to nil. But three more was too many.

The goal of in-box zero is a great goal, but I know that I’m not the only one who struggles with it. How do I know? Two ways: I’ve worked with clients who’ve had tens of thousands of inbox messages they needed to clean out. And whenever someone reaches inbox zero, they’re apt to crow about it. Just this week author and business guru Tim Sanders posted a screen shot of his empty inbox. That’s a measure of how difficult it is to achieve.

Still, I remember how great it felt to have my computer desktop as well-ordered as my physical desktop. I’d like to get back to that happy state. And the causes of my email clutter are the very same things that cause my clients’ physical clutter: deferred decisions, being unclear about what the next action should be, and keeping things I don’t need.

So here’s my mid-year resolution: I’m going to return to inbox zero by the first day of autumn. That means dealing with an extra 5 or 6 messages a day for the next 3 months.

  • I will unsubscribe from newsletters I don’t read; I’ve already canceled three.
  • I’ll make time each week to review those tempting offers and make a firm decision about whether or not I’ll accept them, then either delete the email or sign up and delete.
  • I’ll make time to review any long conversations in which I’m just copied, and either participate or bow out.

And I’ll do the work required to keep the email from accumulating again. Check back to see my progress toward my goal. And if you’d like to join in with a goal of earning your own In-Box Zero badge, state your intention by leaving a comment here.

Humans are natural procrastinators

A wise person does at once, what a fool does at last. Both do the same thing; only at different times.
– Sir John Dalberg-Acton

Hold on, Sir John! Is it possible that delay serves a good purpose? And if, like our appendix, delay has outlived its usefulness, how can we work around it with as little discomfort as possible?

This Thursday I will be speaking to the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) San Francisco chapter, and the topic will be “Mastering Follow-Through.” Join this opportunity to network with many of San Francisco’s most dynamic business women by registering at the NAWBO website, or just join us at the door.

Why is it so hard for us to follow through on our plans and make the change we really want to make? It turns out that humans, along with having big brains and the ability to sort lots of choices, have become “natural procrastinators.”

Want to know how to work with our natural tendencies rather than struggle against them? Join us this Thursday at the Omni Hotel, 500 California Street, San Francisco. We’ll share hors d’oeuvres, lots of networking, and some information you can use the very next day to get more done and feel better about it.

I’ll be making a very special offer just for NAWBO attendees for my “Plan to Thrive” coaching program, that will give you the support you need to go from overwhelmed to overjoyed in just six months, by helping you get control of  your time, paper, and projects.

Great networking with the wonderful women of NAWBO, useful information, special offers —  there are so many reasons to be there on Thursday! Hope to see you then!

Five steps for ending “tolerations”

Get ready to stamp out persistent pests!

I call them “tolerations” – those little irritants we hardly notice. Maybe it’s something small, like a sticking wheel on a desk chair. Maybe it’s something you try to ignore because you feel you can’t change it, like a noisy neighbor. It could be your life-long habit, such as piling your papers rather than filing them, making your desk feel like a barricade.

Whatever our tolerations are, they act like potholes in our path. They slow us down and make the journey much less pleasant than it needs to be.

Uncovering and addressing our tolerations can free up huge amounts of time and energy.

Here’s an exercise that I use to uncover and eliminate those energy-sapping tolerations:

  • Make a list of anything that you may be tolerating, putting up with, overlooking – anything that bothers you or drags you down at work. These could be incomplete tasks, other people’s behavior, equipment and tools, frustrations, problems, or even your own behavior.
  • Choose one to work on. (This is where a coach can be especially beneficial, helping you determine whether this is the time for small steps or bigger challenges, and what is the best focus for you right now.)
  • Consider this toleration. How long have you had it? What do you know of its origin? How big is its impact now? What would be your payoff if you were to eliminate this toleration?
  • What do you want to do with this toleration? You may know immediately how to get rid of it. If not, brainstorm several steps you could take to address your chosen toleration.
  • Take action now.

Take a deep breath and enjoy the increased room in your office, your schedule, or your mind!

What have you been tolerating? Are you ready to get rid of it now? Leave a comment here.

Plan from your passion

Last week I received the audience feedback from a conference workshop I led in November. One respondent commented anonymously:

“So inspiring, clean. Made a promise to myself as a result of this session.”

This is what I live for!

I was leading my popular session “Plan to Thrive – how to shape, track, and follow through on your best business plans,” and while it’s impossible to cover the whole planning process in the 75 minutes typically allotted for a conference workshop, I aim to give people several tools that can take them from vague and disorganized to focused and motivated, with their plan beginning to take shape even during the session.

I am passionate about helping others get in touch with the possibilities in their business so that they can get the results they want with more ease. In that workshop session I spoke from that passion, and consequently I was able to tap that passion in the workshop participants.

As you make your business plans, remember to station your passion front and center. Planing isn’t merely about making a spreadsheet of what’s possible, or worse, probable.

A good plan also touches the passion that is the source of so much energy, creativity, and focus.

A good plan will help to propel you out of bed in the morning. It will hold your passion up before you, reminding you of why you bother.

A good plan will enable you to enlist others in your enterprise, so you don’t have to go it alone.

Success requires clarity about goals and how to reach them. It requires good execution; no plan can help very much if we don’t take the steps outlined in it. And long-term, sustainable success also requires tapping into our passion.

How will your passion inform your plan for the future? What are you excited about right now? Leave a comment here.

Getting it done without deadlines

There is a certain category of tasks that languish on our lists because they lack a firm deadline. Catching up with filing is one example; everything with a deadline can come before filing. Writing a book or developing a new product can be another example unless you have a publisher and a contract, in which case you’ve got a deadline with teeth.

HPIM0081To effectively follow through on these types of tasks, create a meaningful deadline for yourself. To keep up with filing, schedule a regular meeting in your office. Knowing that respected colleagues are coming creates the incentive to spruce up your space, dealing with  whatever paper piles have accumulated since you last filed. (Of course, schedule 30 minutes to file before they arrive. Merely applogizing for the mess is not allowed!)

Announce your book or other project plans to the world. Add a line to your email signature that says, “Coming, November 2009: 25 Ways to Get It Done Now, a new book by (your name here)” By making your intention public, you have created a deadline where none existed naturally.

If you need help to reach your goal, arrange for accountability with a partner or coach.

Do you have plans that are going nowhere for lack of a deadline? Declare your intention and your deadline here.

Six things fathers have taught me about the good life

In recognition of Fathers Day, I would like to share a few of the lessons that fathers have taught me about the good life.

image courtesy of artfiles.art.com

image courtesy of artfiles.art.com

Quality: Forget perfection, strive for excellence.

Craftsmanship: Never blame your tools.

Mastery: Begin with baby steps, but don’t stop there.

Diplomacy: The first lesson in the art of war is to avoid it if at all possible.

Patience: When using a saw, it is patience, not brute strength, that makes the best cut.

Time management: You can always think of more things to do in a day than you can get done. Choose the ones that matter most.

My own father has given me many things, material gifts and the immaterial ones, gifts of bicycles and lessons in riding them. Along with lessons in how to make a living, he supplied lessons in how to make a life.

To my father, my father-in-law, and to all our father figures, I wish a very happy Fathers Day.

What lessons in living a good life did you learn from a father? Leave a comment here.

Kaizen: quote

A quote for the day:

Constant dripping hollows out a stone.
— The Roman poet Lucretius (98-55 BCE)

The Japanese Garden, Washington Park, Portland, Oregon USA

The Japanese Garden, Washington Park, Portland, Oregon USA


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