Pause and Refresh to Improve Productivity

Woman relaxing on beachEver have one of those days when you’re so busy you barely have time to go to the bathroom or grab a bite to eat? Who am I kidding – we probably all have! No matter how busy you are, however, taking time to pause provides a much-needed break and reboot for your brain.

Why is that important? When you spend your day in reactive mode, busily responding to everything that comes your way, you miss opportunities to recalibrate and make sure you’re focused on what’s important. You’re so busy taking on tasks and running with them that you may miss the fact that you’re running the wrong way or with the wrong task, as something else may be more worthy of your time at the moment. We’re so caught up in the “doing” that we don’t allow time for pausing and thinking.

How do you know when you need to pause and refresh? When you show up at a meeting unprepared or without supporting materials; when you hop on a phone call without preparing for what you want to discuss; when you forget to capture outcomes from meeting or phone calls and things fall through the cracks; when dinner guests are on their way and you’re just getting back from the grocery store; when you’ve been busy all day but have no idea what you actually were doing – the list goes on and on.

So how can you make pausing and refreshing an ongoing habit? Consider what athletes, musicians and other types of performers do: they take time before the main event to prepare, not only physically, but mentally as well. For example, hockey players don’t just lace up their skates and hop on the ice; they sit, sometimes trance-like and get their game face on – visualizing how they’ll take on their opponent. It’s just part of their normal game-day routine.

Can you make it part of your routine to spend time reviewing meeting agendas well before the meeting so you can prepare? Can you make it a habit to wait to dial the phone until you’ve had a chance to review the purpose of your call and rehearse what you want to say? Can you take a few moments at the end of the day to debrief from all the day’s activities and capture next actions? Can you plan your dinner party the week before it’s scheduled? The answer to all these questions, of course, is yes you can – you just have to make these behaviors a habit. Signs, sticky notes, timers and even an accountability partner are just a few examples of ways you can remind yourself.

Improve the quality of your day – pause, breathe, and regroup often. It make take more effort to think rather than to react, but in the long run it will result improve your productivity and the quality of your life.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony, and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Outfox Your Inbox

smiling woman at computerThere was a time when it was exciting to receive a new email. Yay, someone is thinking of me and cares enough to write to me! Those days sure are gone. For most people, at least in their work world, email is the cause of much frustration and inefficiency. Fear not, readers – here are some ideas to help you win the battle against email overload:

Be purposeful. Don’t fall victim to the “skim and delay” technique. You know, that process where you open an email, read it, and then tell yourself you’ll deal with it later while you eagerly move on to the next email to see if it’s more interesting. Next thing you know, you have an inbox full of read but unprocessed emails that you rarely (or never) get back to. As you open each email, do what productivity guru David Allen suggests and answer the question, “What’s the next action?” Then, do something purposeful to move the email along on its journey – respond, delete, mark it for future action, file it for reference, or forward it to someone else.

Get off mailing lists. Are you on mailing lists that are no longer relevant for you? Take the time to either unsubscribe, or set up a rule to move those emails directly to your deleted folder (of course I hope you won’t do either with my newsletter, but I understand if it’s the best decision for you).

Send fewer emails. Keep in mind that every email you send will likely result in a corresponding reply. Think about whether a phone call or other form of communication might be more efficient in some situations. Even short emails like “Thanks” take time to read, so indicate when you don’t expect a reply by including “No Reply Needed” at the bottom of your message.

Send thorough emails. As Mark Twain’s quote, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead” humorously points out, taking the time to write a brief but comprehensive communication takes time. However, investing time to tell people your message clearly and concisely will save time in the long run. Your recipient will know exactly what you want from them, so a volley of back-and- forth messages is less likely. You can even be on the lookout for opportunities to make the subject line the entire email.

I’d love to hear what techniques you use to outfox your inbox.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

The Sounds of Productivity

man holding hand to earIt seems that noise is almost inescapable in modern life: traffic sounds, overhead airplanes, loud music booming from the car next to me (and why are they never playing music I like?), the sirens of emergency vehicles, and barking dogs. One of my greatest pleasures when I’m working at home is sitting on my deck enjoying the soothing sights and sounds of nature: colorful birds feasting at the birdfeeders, playful squirrels frolicking in the trees, cicadas signaling the warming sun, and energetic rabbits bounding here and there. My peaceful world was rocked this past week as road construction crews paved my street. The jarring noises they created made me realize how important a calming environment is to my productivity. Is the same true for you?

Here are some ideas to bring some peace and productivity to your otherwise noisy world:

  • Wear noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds. Enjoy some music that promotes productivity and prevent the outside world from intruding.
  • Turn off the TV and radio talk shows. Multitasking (which is what we’re doing if we try to work and listen at the same time) actually makes us less productive because our brain can’t do more than one cognitive thing at a time – it can only switch back and forth between tasks. So turn off the voices that draw your attention away from the task at hand and actually make things take longer.
  • Turn off your phone. The distraction of answering incoming calls and responding to text messages as they occur can cause hours of wasted time. After we interrupt ourselves to tend to the beck and call of others, we have to spend time ramping back up to whatever it was we were working on. Discover how much more you can accomplish by turning off your phone for 30 minutes and focusing on the task at hand.
  • Add meaningful sound. The Journal of Consumer Research published a paper concluding that the ideal work environment for creative thinking should contain a little bit of background noise. Coffitivity can bring the sound of a coffee shop to your home, while Ambient Mixer allows you to customize the white noise of your choice.

Here’s hoping you find just the right amount of peace and quiet.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

 

 

Command Control in Your Home

Command centerDo you spend your mornings rushing around trying to find the things you need to get out the door? Is there a frantic fire drill every day as you hunt for your keys, overdue library books, etc.? Do you forget to pay bills because there’s not a central place to keep them? A command center can eliminate these stressful situations by giving you a central location where you can find things quickly. It can also help prevent clutter from creeping into other areas of your home because it provides a location where otherwise problematic items belong.

A command center can serve several functions:

  • A place for items in transition: those library books to be returned, the empty food storage container to give back to your sister, the birthday gift for Saturday’s party, etc.
  • A place for items that need attention: the broken mug handle that needs gluing, the bills to be paid, the party invitation requiring a RSVP phone call etc.
  • A place for family communication: the family calendar, the field trip note to discuss with your child, shopping lists, etc.
  • A place for important, frequently-used items: your keys, your cell phone and charger, etc.
  • A place for general information: coupons, phone lists, carryout menus, activities schedules, etc.

Now that you know how important a command center can be to the smooth operation of your home, here are some tips to help you set one up:

Find the right spot. Ideally, it should be a place that is heavily trafficked so things will stay in view. An unused spot on the kitchen counter, a nook in a hallway, or a shelf or counter in a mudroom can be the perfect spot.

Be flexible. There’s no set formula for establishing a command center, so create one that fits your and your family’s situation.

Be clear about what belongs there. Have bins and designated spots for things so your command center doesn’t become a dumping ground. Have a conversation with family members so they know what belongs there, and what doesn’t.

Clean it up regularly. Toss old schedules and expired coupons, move paid bills to their next location, create a regular time to go through the mail, and find another spot for things that don’t belong there. Without regular policing, you’ll soon be buried in everyone’s random stuff.

I’d love to hear how your command center is working for you.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

The Power of Play Time

children playingNo, this isn’t targeted at parents or school administrators. It’s for anyone who works hard and is often caught up in being busy without taking time to pause and recharge. I’m reading a book called Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. The book reminds us that the most important goal of time management is spending our time getting the right things done, not getting more done in less time. Making time for play is an important element in getting the right things done. Here are some thoughts on that seemingly contradictory premise – and with summer in full swing, it’s the perfect time to make time to play.

You may recall as a child making a fort out of a card table and a blanket, or a house out of a giant refrigerator box. Maybe you played street hockey using a push broom as your goal stick (oh wait, that was me!), or baseball using rocks for bases. Children use playtime to unleash their imaginations, to solve problems, and to create fantasy worlds. As adults, we may find ourselves in situations at work or at home in which we need to be imaginative, to solve problems, and to fantasize about what could be. However, it seems many adults have stifled their sense of play and therefore lost this creative ability.

Play is defined on Dictionary.com as “employing oneself in diversion, amusement or recreation,” or “to do something in sport that is not to be taken seriously.” Sounds like a worthless endeavor, right? McKeown, however, points out some of the many ways that play is actually essential. “Play has the power to significantly improve everything from personal health to relationships to education to organizations’ ability to innovate. Nothing fires up the brain like play.” He goes on to say that play “Helps us to see possibilities we otherwise wouldn’t have seen and make connections we would otherwise not have made.” Play reduces stress and improves the brain’s executive function skills (including planning, prioritizing, decision-making and sequencing) – all skills critical to our performance and productivity.

Here’s a link to my newsletter where you can read more about the power of play.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony, freedom, and plenty of play time,
Sue Small for Blog

Focus on What’s Essential

Are you making your highest contribution to the world by spending your time on only what’s essential? Are you able to filter through all of the options you come across each day and invest your time in the right activities? I recently started reading a book called Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown that’s all about living in this fashion. Although I haven’t gotten very far yet, I can tell this is a book that speaks my language. It provides deeper exploration of the concept of “less is more,” and provides a new way of looking at that notion in terms of our time.

As a productivity coach, I help people create tools and behaviors to help them be more productive. As this book properly points out, the goal of productivity should not be to get more done, but to get the right things done. In McKeown’s own words, “The Way of the Essentialist… is not a time management strategy, or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter. By forcing us to apply a more selective criteria for what is Essential, the disciplined pursuit of less empowers us to reclaim control of our own choices about where to spend our precious time and energy – instead of giving others the implicit permission to choose for us.”

How can we be sure we’re investing our time in the right activities? We can start by accepting the fact that most things we spend our time on are probably trivial and hardly vital, and then work to eliminate those things. This is a challenge for a lot of reasons, including the social pressures and decision fatigue that result from living in the modern world. With so many people sharing the details of their lives on social media, we often feel compelled to “keep up with the Joneses” and pack as much activity into our days as we can, regardless of whether they help us live a meaningful life. With so many choices of how to spend our time, including the added demands (or temptations) presented by 24/7 connectivity, we’re constantly pulled in many directions and forced to make loads of decisions every day, leading to the deterioration of the quality of our decisions.

Even though I’ve only made it through the book’s introduction, it’s already inspired me to be on the lookout for the trivial things that are taking up my precious time. I’ll start by being more discerning about how I spend my time online. I’m going to evaluate each newsletter I receive (probably about 10 per week) and unsubscribe to those whose content is no longer valuable. I plan to use the time I gain to read more books – wish me luck!

What trivial things can you eliminate from your life in order to make room for what’s meaningful?

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Getting Things Done

getting to the finish lineGetting things done – it seems that goal consumes many of us, myself included. There’s actually a book titled Getting Things Done by David Allen and it offers some wonderful advice on how to be productive. This month you get to take an inside peek at how I get things done. My goal is not to suggest that you should do things my way, but to offer some ideas that might help you create a system that works for you.

I keep a master to-do list. I’ve written about this before – keeping all of those random to-dos in a single place so that I can remember them and prioritize them. If I know when I’ll do them, they go on a specific date in my planner. Otherwise, they go on my master to-do list. As David Allen says, when you don’t write down all of your to-dos, you’re unable to renegotiate commitments with yourself that you don’t even know you have.

I block out time. It’s one thing to identify what needs to be done, but quite another to actually do it. I have a routine that makes sure I fit in all the recurring things I need to do. For example, I pay bills on Tuesday; I plan the upcoming week, including meals, on Sunday; I do laundry on Friday; I remind my family to clean the house every day of the week – still waiting for them to block out time to actually do it!

I take action. David Allen talks about asking the question, “What’s the next action?” when dealing with a piece of information. Whether it’s a piece of paper, an email, a voicemail message, or text message, I ask myself that very question. Then I do something decisive to move that tidbit along on its journey. For example, the next action for a piece of paper might be to make a phone call to get more information, to file it, or to toss it. My goal is to do at least one thing to move it along on its journey.

I regroup. David Allen refers to this as a weekly review. While my Sunday weekly planning session is less structured than Allen describes, the concept is the same. I look at what’s scheduled on my calendar for the next week to make sure I’m ready. If not, I schedule time to get ready. I review my sent emails to see if I need to follow up on anything. I discuss my calendar with my husband to make sure we are both aligned on the week’s activities. Taking this time to prepare for the week helps me get centered and feel in control.

I’d love to hear what tips you have for getting things done.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Five Things to Put on Your Don’t-Do List

DON'T DOI’ve previously written about using a to-do list – that sometimes pesky, often helpful tool that helps make sure nothing important slips through the cracks. But often we’re so busy focusing on what we need to/should do that we blindly plod along without stopping to consider what we should stop doing. Here are a few unproductive habits that you might consider crossing off your list – permanently! I hope you to get as much value from this don’t-do list as you do from your to-do list.

  1. Don’t check email first thing in the morning. There’s not much that’s more satisfying than accomplishing a complex, challenging task. For most of us, these types of tasks are best attempted first thing in the morning, before other tasks and other people take over our day. When you check email first thing, you’re inviting the rest of the world to tell you what to do, rather than you taking charge of your day. Recognize that although it might be fun or interesting to check e-mail first thing, it’s rarely necessary and almost always unproductive.
  2. Don’t attend meetings that don’t require your presence. Ruthlessly evaluate every meeting invitation to determine what value you would add or receive by attending. Could your needs be fulfilled simply by receiving the minutes of the meeting? Could someone else attend and contribute in your place? Is there an unclear or insignificant objective for the meeting? Unless there are clearly defined objectives that matter to you and absolutely require your participation, guard your time and scrutinize every meeting invitation.
  3. Don’t confuse projects with tasks. I often encounter people who are frustrated because they seldom get everything on their daily to-do list accomplished, and it’s often because they make this mistake. A project is anything that takes more than one step to accomplish. Anything from planting the garden to planning a vacation is a project – they are accomplished in multiple, unique steps and often cannot be done in one sitting. When you plan your day, plan time to accomplish discrete tasks that will lead you towards completing projects.
  4. Don’t be constantly available. When we continuously check email, obsessively text back and forth, and answer the phone every time it rings, it’s like turning on the spigot and letting the flood of everyone’s demands drown out our well-planned day and remove us from being “in the moment”. I’m constantly amazed by the number of people I see walking down the street texting, talking on their cell phone when at a restaurant with guests, and riding public transportation with their face staring at a screen rather than connecting with their fellow human beings. Sure, there are times when we absolutely have to attend to matters, but if we’re constantly distracted by and grasping at whatever is coming at us, it’s hard to be productive. And besides, it’s important to take some time to disconnect and refresh. Which leads me to my last point…
  5. Don’t forget to smell the roses. In our busy, busy lives, it’s easy to get focused on accomplishing, rather than on being. Build some white space into your life so you can enjoy the spontaneous moments that make it all worthwhile. Don’t focus on the future at the expense of appreciating the present. Don’t neglect friends and family in the quest for accomplishing or acquiring more. Don’t take for granted all the good things you already have.

I’d love to hear what’s on your don’t-do list.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Stop Running Late

RUNNING LATEDo you often run late? Do you constantly feel like you’re rushing to get places? If so, it may be because you’re trying to squeeze in “just one more thing” before you head out the door. Many people fall victim to this phrase, especially people with ADHD. Let’s explore this mindset and what you can do about it.

“Just one more thing” can take on many different forms:

  • Checking online for directions just before you head out the door to drive to a meeting.
  • Sending a “quick” email before you leave work to go your child’s band concert.
  • Stopping at the store to choose and buy the appetizer for the party you’re headed to.
  • Making a “quick” phone call while your family waits for you to join them for dinner.

Any one of these scenarios can be stressful on you and the people you impact. You’re rushing, you’re late, you’re reprimanded, and you’re feeling like a failure – again. What happened? You were sure that quick task would only take five minutes. Maybe you didn’t think things all the way through – the line at the grocery store was longer than you anticipated (if you anticipated a line at all!). Maybe you got distracted – once you were online or in your email, you started checking other things and lost track of time. Maybe you underestimated how long the task would take – that quick phone call took 15 minutes as you exchanged pleasantries, caught up on the latest news, and finally got to the reason for your call.

So how do you break this pattern? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Constantly ask yourself “What’s the most important thing I should be doing right now?” Should I be checking email, or should I be getting out the door so I’m not late to my son’s concert? Should I make this phone call now, or should I join my family for dinner and write a reminder to make the call later?
  • Plan ahead. Plan each day the day before, and even look two or three days ahead to see if there’s anything you need to do to prepare. Do I have directions to the meeting? Do I know what appetizer I’m going to bring, and have the ingredients for it?
  • Set a timer. If you absolutely have to squeeze in something, set a timer to make sure you’re only spending the anticipated amount of time on it. For example, if you have to get that email sent before you leave, set a timer for the five minutes you’ll allow yourself to spend on it, and let it go when the timer goes off. You may discover that trying to “beat the clock” will help you stay focused and efficient.

I’d love to hear what you do to prevent being late.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Say “No” so You Can Say “Yes”

NOFeel like you have too much to do and not enough time to do it? Who doesn’t? But the simple word “no” can help you find more time. By setting priorities, you can identify which people, organizations, activities and causes aren’t in alignment with your goals. Saying “no” in these situations can free up time and allow you to say “yes” to more fulfilling activities that are in alignment with your goals.

Last year was my year of “no.” For example, I dropped out of two professional groups I’d been a member of for quite a while because they were no longer helping me grow my business. I’ve been able to maintain the friendships I’d developed in those groups, but I am now able to devote the time I’d otherwise have spent attending the group’ events to other activities that align better with my current situation. Two other long-term members of one of the groups also dropped out after I did – my move prompted them to re-evaluate their priorities and see that their time would be better spent on other things.

So, what activities are you engaged in that no longer serve you well? Rather than just rolling along, evaluate if they are still a good fit for what you want out of life. Here are some thoughts that may help you feel bolder about saying “no”:

  • Every time you say “yes” to doing something, you’re saying “no” to other things you won’t have time to do as a result.
  • Even if the requester tries to entice you with how little time their request will take (e.g., “It will only take a few minutes”) remember that you’ll never get that time back.
  • Rather than considering only the amount of time your obligation will require you to invest by saying “yes”, think of what it will cost you in terms of activities and accomplishments you won’t have time for. For example, attending a meeting won’t just take up 30 minutes of your life, it will cost you time away from your family.
  • When you’re compelled to say “yes,” be aware of whether you’re responding out of a sincere desire to be of service, or rather out of a sense of fear, obligation, or payback. Reconsider your response if it’s one of the latter three. Of course, you may still decide to assist, but at least you’ll be doing it consciously.
  • Rather than a flat-out “no,” consider whether you can say “yes” to some part of the request, or help out in some other way that is more agreeable to you.
  • It’s not only other people we sometimes should sat “no” to – television, social media, reading blogs (gasp!), and kids’ activities (do they need to be involved in quite so many?) are just some examples of behaviors that can steal our time from more fulfilling endeavors.

Saying “no” may not be easy, but it is essential to long-term fulfillment. I’d love to hear what you’ve said “no” (or “yes”) to and how it’s changed your life.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog