Marinating

A little while back, a dinner I made was a bust.

It was a steak taco that required marinating meat for “2 to 24 hours.” With only 2 hours of marinating, the meat barely had any flavor.

Fortunately, I learned my lesson, and marinated overnight the next time around.

You can see the punchline easily enough.

The harder question is: what parts of our work (and home) life are like marinating?

Where will doing the same activity sooner create 10 times the yield?

Things like:

  • First drafts
  • A half hour with a pen and a blank piece of paper jotting down first thoughts about a thorny problem
  • Reading together at bedtime
  • Feedback given right after something happened
  • Coaching
  • Problem-defining (versus problem-solving)

Often, we find ourselves stuck in a vain search for more time, when we don’t need more time at all.

We need time well spent, invested early, so that the seeds we plant have time to grow.

Open Mondays, Open Fridays

18 months ago, I made a structural change to my calendar that I love: leaving Mondays and Fridays (nearly) free of meetings, so that each week has a No Meeting Monday and a No Meeting Friday.

These days are dedicated to ‘doing’ rather than to talking or reacting. What’s valuable is not simply the number of hours available, it’s the large blocks of time every week: enough time to create, and the requirement to face a blank page.

How to Make it Happen

Most of my meetings are external, so I’ve set up my Calendly to only show free time on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Beyond that, it’s up to me to stay disciplined when someone asks me if I can meet on Monday at noon. (“No!”)

(Though, in truth, a short meeting here or there doesn’t materially impact my flow, since I do need some breaks.)

The Flow of the Week

On Mondays, I’m setting up for the week and laying the foundation for things that I need to move forward. This allows me to maintain some control over my (and the company’s) direction of travel rather than constantly being in responsive/reactive mode.

Fridays are for closing everything that came up during the week, including ensuring I’ve properly followed up on the many (many) external conversations I had on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

In addition, to make things really hum I also:

  • Us the end of the day on Friday to make a short list of Monday morning priorities. This helps me ensure I don’t lose any threads from the previous week.
  • Find time on Sunday to clean out my Inbox / Slack from the weekend. This way I don’t lose my Monday morning to responding to inbound traffic (but this is a balancing act because it’s also important for me to keep my weekends free…).

The Great (and Hard) Parts

The obvious challenge of this schedule is the hyper-full Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday that can feel overwhelming.

I have pretty good endurance but there’s a limit to how many productive hours of conversations I can have (my max is 5). And even 3 or 4 hours of meetings is too much without great notes. I use Notion, with clear next steps documented at the end of every meeting. Otherwise, by 3pm I’ve forgotten what I agreed to do in my 9am meeting.

The more important, and subtle, challenge is starting the week off with blank space.

If I’ve caught up on Friday (and, when needed, over the weekend), then Monday morning is all mine. Forcing myself, nearly every week, to face that down and decide for myself what’s most important for me to do, feels a lot like staring at a blank page and needing to write a blog post: humbling, often intimidating, even spilling over into a bit of soul-searching….

What is my job when I’m not frantically responding to the things that everyone else needs me to do for them?

It’s a good question that we all need to ask ourselves regularly.

And I’ve found that without this sort of structure in my days, I can go weeks, and even months, without asking myself this question.

The fact is, it’s a question we all need to answer for ourselves, regardless of how ‘senior’ we are in the organization.

We all have unique talents and a unique perspective. We all, therefore, need to have our own agenda: the work we do when it’s our time and not someone else’s.

To Be More Productive, Limit Your Time

There’s a lot of talk about shorter work weeks. This is a natural outgrowth of the acceleration of remote work over the last two years.

The thesis, as I understand it, has two parts:

  1. Most/all employees can get the same amount done in 32 hours that they can get done in 40 hours.
  2. Doing so leads to an overall increase in well-being for everyone

I have no idea what the long-term data are/will be on the first point, but my first reactions are:

  • I’m sure most people waste a ton of time at most jobs. This  means there’s a lot of slack built in. So it’s believable that some people can work 20% fewer hours and get the same amount done.
  • I am curious about whether this impact is temporary or permanent.
  • And, more fundamentally, I wonder what happens in people’s heads when they feel they only have 4 days in which to get 5 days’ worth of work done.

Does our time being (or feeling) constrained lead us to be more productive?

I think this is entirely possible. When our boss, at 10am, tells us we’re working until 10pm today, most of us will find space for a longer lunch and a few other distractions.

Conversely, I’ve found (particularly during the pandemic) that knowing that I have a set of end-of-day obligations at home (driving the kids somewhere, cooking dinner) keeps me hyper-focused on getting everything I need to get done in the (shortened) available time and I am more productive.

You might experiment with juicing your output by, counterintuitively, constraining your time. Create your own strict deadlines for projects—“I’ll get this done by 5pm” rather than “by tomorrow”—and see if it creates a positive cascading effect in the hours leading up to that deadline.

The fact is, we all have moments when our energy lags throughout the day. The question is: what do we do in those moments, how do we manage them?

Do we consciously take productive breaks (getting some fresh air, walking around a bit, getting a glass of water and sitting quietly without our phones)?

Or do we dither and get pulled into (online) things that can spiral and that sap our energy?

For most of us, in the last 60 minutes before a deadline, we’re hyper-focused and spending 0% of our time doomscrolling.

The trick is to harness a sustainable version of this feeling over the course of a day, so we have a sustained sense of focus and urgency and, as a result, are much more efficient.

And, lest we forget, whenever we hit our own early deadline, we have to remember Jerry Seinfeld’s advice to give ourselves a (figurative) cookie. The reward for 4, 5 or 6 hours of super-productive, focused work has to be…rewarding! And that probably isn’t jumping immediately to the next task.

The bonus is that, not only does this behavior make us more productive, efficient and happier, it’s also an opportunity to practice being accountable to ourselves (and not just to other people).

The muscle of self-accountability is a blog post for another day, but the short version is this: the better we get good a keeping the promises we make to ourselves (along with, not instead of, the promises we make to others) the more chance that we’ll use our newly-found free time for projects that really matter.

 

Goodbye Notebook, Hello Notion

For years I carried around a nice, small Moleskin notebook to every meeting. I had various systems, each typically lasting about a year, to distinguish between note-taking content and next steps.

Moleskin Notebook
Photo by Stationary Nerd

My notebook was a sacred object which, if lost, set my productivity back by weeks or more. That said, the constant iterating on how to manage the space and my to do list, the inability to search for anything, and my crummy handwriting combined for a system that I knew needed improvement.

This last year, when Zoom meetings started, I stopped using my notebook almost immediately.

This wasn’t a conscious choice: it had more to do with the physical setup of my desk and where I was sitting around my house. For a while I wasn’t taking notes, and I used other systems to track to do’s. It felt like things were working well enough, though I was nervous about what was falling through the cracks.

Then, in March when I really ramped up my external sales and fundraising, I started taking notes in Notion.

Notion is a very powerful tool, and I use about 1% of its functionality (probably less). For me, it’s just Google Docs on steroids, but it’s so fabulous at what I’m using it for that I would miss it terribly if I couldn’t use it.

I like it much much more than Google Docs because:

  1. The interface is slicker, particularly the keystrokes (e.g. I type ‘/to do’ and a to do list appears; I type a dash and hit ‘tab’ and I’m making a bulleted list).
  2. I find file storage in Google Docs disorienting: it always feels like a jumble of searchable docs, instead of “here’s everything all in one place.” With Notion, I click on one URL and all my meeting notes are there, easily organized, and well-structured.
  3. Google tracking all my keystrokes and suggesting what I type next wigs me out.

I create one Notion page per meeting, with clear follow-ups, organized in a super-simple week-to-week structure. It looks like this.

Notion Sales Meeting Notes

This has transformed my work in two ways.

The more obvious point is that it’s so clean and organized. Everything is in one place, I know exactly where to find it, and the to-do’s are so black and white (and so fun to check off) that it makes staying on top of everything a breeze. Plus, because of the simple interface, I find myself using it consistently. At the end of a day with 8+ external meetings, I cannot remember what I promised anyone in the first half of the day…thankfully it’s all there in Notion.

The more subtle point is that taking notes during a meeting keeps me more focused. I listen harder and stay fully dialed in, something that can be difficult with hours of external calls every day.

I like this approach so much that I wonder what I’m going to do when in-person meetings come back, since I don’t think banging away on my keyboard with someone right in front of me is going to work.

Until then, I’m totally devoted to Notion, and I think you might like it too.

 

 

 

To Do List Hack

I’m terrible at To Do lists.

I’ve tried countless approaches of keeping lists of things I have to do. Each time, a few weeks or a few months in, the lists fill up, overflow, and then mutate. They transform into an ugly, too-long litany of all the things I never got done.

Once that happens, I stop using them daily, meaning they’re essentially useless.

For a while I thought this was a software problem. Most To Do list software have endless features I don’t use. For the way my brain and my days work, I don’t want a project management solution, I just want a list (or a few lists).

I had some success with uber-simple software: I used Wunderlist successfully for more than a year, and Remember the Milk always seems appealing.

But, in the end, these too broke down. My system reverted to the tried-and-true combination of inconsistent handwritten lists in notebooks + my email inbox (where emails marked unread are a “to do” of one kind or another). This really doesn’t work: it reinforces a tendency to focus on urgent over important things, and it also results in some stuff slipping through the cracks.

So I’m at it again, using Asana thanks to peer pressure from my 60 Decibels teammates, but intentionally using 1/100th of the feature set. It’s only working because of a great, super-simple hack suggested by a teammate.

For each of my To Do lists (I have four of them, three for work and one personal), I was told to create the following four categories:

Today

This week

Next week

Longer term

That’s the hack. It’s absurdly simple, I know. But it’s really working.

What’s great is that, without using lots of features, dependencies or due dates, this helps me use my lists for both tracking and prioritization. It also forces me, in a very direct way (and in a way that due dates never have) to be clear with myself about what I’m going to get done today, this week, next week, or later. Plus, since most real-life tasks have multiple steps, this structure helps me track them easily without needing to put every step as a new To Do: instead, I just change a few words and slide the task from one category to another.

(For example:  I’ll have “Reach out to Samitha about scheduling a call this week” in the “Today” category.  After I email her, it change it to , “Follow up with Samitha about a meeting this week” and move it to the “This week” category)

I’m finding this hack to be the perfect middle ground between a single endless list with due dates (that I make up and ignore), and an elaborate, futile attempt to schedule and project manage everything—which feels a lot spending too much time on the list and too little time doing important work.

I hope this hack helps you too. Other ideas are welcome, just share them in the comments.

Reclaiming Monday Mornings

I’m a big believer in weekends.

Rest, recovery and unplugging allow us to clear our minds of the dross and stress of the previous week. If we truly let ourselves recharge, we find ourselves with both more energy and creativity on Monday mornings.

However, work still happens on the weekend: emails still arrive, questions need to be answered, calendars get shifted around, Slack channels come alive.

It’s tempting to wake up Monday morning and see this influx as a weedy undergrowth that needs to be hacked away immediately. With this mentality, we choose to start our Monday morning with a few hours of routine, mindless tasks.

A great trade is to find just one hour over the weekend for simple, menial work: delete spam and respond to spam-like work messages; check over to do lists for the week and add/delete items; look at and adjust calendars. These tasks carry a light mental load and ticking them off lets us start the week calmer and more grounded because we are on our front foot.

Then, the payoff: use the first two hours of Monday morning for something creative, important, scary, or fun. Maybe it’s a project you’ve been putting off, or it’s one you’ve not yet discovered. Perhaps its lying hidden on a blank sheet of paper, waiting for you to find it.

This small, stolen hour of catch-up work can recast Monday mornings: instead of “here we go again” we start the week with “finally, a few precious hours to do important work before I get sucked into the week.”

LIFO, FIFO, or NIFO?

There are lots of different email strategies out there (and it’s quite a reflection on the world we live in that mastering email is a key element in becoming more professionally productive).  You might file or search; you might believe in an empty Inbox or not; you might leave your email on all day or disconnect your email program for part of the day.

(I happen to be: search not file; no empty inbox; on all day.  You?)

The big question is, what exactly do you DO when you open up your Inbox?

The FIFO philosophy (first-in, first-out) has you digging from the back…you start with your oldest email and work backwards.  I suspect this is an uncommon strategy for all but the most avid empty-inboxers.

LIFO (last-in, first-out), conversely, has you start with whatever came in most recently.  It’s tempting and rewarding and, I suspect, a terrible strategy most of the time – instant gratification disguising itself as productivity.

I’d propose a NIFO strategy instead: none-in, first out.  That is, you open your email because you have something specific to get done, someone you want to reach out to, a very important action that you want to initiate.

Since you have many very important things to do (customers to call on, projects that you are moving forward, etc.), starting with these, rather than starting with replying to whatever everyone else wants you to do, allows you to own your agenda rather than have your agenda own you; it ensures that when you run out of “email time” (as you inevitably will) that the things that are left off the list aren’t the five most important things you have to do; and if you’re disciplined about this you’ll never dive into email just to empty your inbox…you’ll start with actions you want to initiate and then (and only then) will get to “replying all.”

Free Kindle book – save your meetings

A few years ago, I started a depressing Excel spreadsheet to track how many hours a day I was spending in meetings.  It was sobering.  Four, five, sometimes six hours a day.  When was I supposed to do real work?

It seems like an impossible problem to solve, but there may be a way.  Al Pittampalli has a new manifesto on how to save your company by rescuing it from death-by-a-thousand-meetings.  It’s called “Read this before our next meeting: The Modern Meeting Standard.”  You can read it in less than an hour, and it just might turn your company around.

Even better, it’s free for the next five days on Kindle, no strings attached.

Download here.

The first paragraph of the book:

Someone asked me the other day what I do for a living.  I found myself hard-pressed for an answer.  If he wanted to know my job title, or what industry I worked in, then all I had to do was recite what’s on my business card.  But he seemed sincere.  He honestly wanted to know what I do most of the day, so I was honest, too: What I do for a living is attend meetings.  Bad meetings.

Sound familiar?  Download the book for free.

Why are you staring?

Why are you staring all day at your computer?

Is it because you’re working or because you’re trying to figure out what to work on?

They’re not the same thing.

90% or 5%

I recently heard a speaker who suggested, to a roomful of hyper-productive multitaskers, a radical reorientation of how to spend time.  This speaker, a successful investor and investment adviser, doesn’t write emails, doesn’t multi-task, and doesn’t have a Pavlovian response to a Blackberry’s red blinking light.   Based on his own experience, he suggested that successful decisions come when we create space for deep contemplation and reflection – when we create the time that allows us to we walk around and look at our problems with the curiosity and reflection of a poet who studies a rock, or a beach, or the morning sky.

A lovely idea that is easy to dismiss, to be sure – and many in the audience had just that reaction.  One person went so far as to give an impassioned argument in favor of the efficiency of multi-tasking (while conceding that he agrees with Clifford Nass’ research showing that multi-tasking doesn’t work).

Why are we all so defensive?  Perhaps because we kid ourselves into think that we’re almost getting done 100% of what we need to get done.  We’re super-busy, but, we tell ourselves, we’re probably completing 90% of what we absolutely must get done, and the other 10% probably isn’t all that important anyway, right?  And if we’re getting 90% done, then cutting out half of our meetings or not responding to half our emails sounds impossible.  It feels like a move from 90% to 60%.  Imagine the impact!

But I wonder if the 90% is an illusion.  What if I’m doing 15% of what I could do, or even 5%?  What if I’m nowhere near doing everything I could do that would be productive, because “everything” has gotten so big that I’m never anywhere but the tip of the iceberg.

If I’m only doing 5% of what I “could” do, then a radical shift becomes easier.  By acknowledging that I’m the one deciding how I spend the time, and by recognizing that my criteria might be really good or really bad, I just might create the space for that radical reorientation.

Am I ready to make a big change?  Not yet.  But I do think that doing away with the notion that I’m doing “almost everything” will allow more space for doing what I really need to do.

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook