Archive for the Category practical tips

 
 

Quick guide: making your job easier

The good people at Know how non profit are soliciting how-to guides. I sort of said I’d do one. But then I thought I could post a quick guide here, and see if they wanted it too. It’s about How to make your job easier, which is also the title of a workshop or seminar I offer.

Make decisions early

Leaving options open can seem like a good idea. Not getting committed too early gives flexibility. Well, perhaps. But only up to a point. Delaying decisions often just turns out to be a drag on your energy and systems. Anything unresolved squats on your psyche, triggering stress and putting a brake on your freewheeling. Think of the practical downside too. If you haven’t, for example, decided whether your conference is going to be in Bristol in September or Birmingham in October, you and your staff are even now missing opportunities to advance whichever one you eventually go for.

And of course, if you delay too long, you risk having to make a rushed decision when whatever it is suddenly becomes urgent. In productivity guru David Allen’s fine phrase, decide what to do when it shows up, not when it blows up.

Gather the low-hanging fruit

That is, go for easily attainable tasks that give you quick wins and a sense of progress. If you can’t see any low-hanging fruit, create it. Break tasks down into the smallest, practical, do-able steps. Sorting out next year’s budget or reshaping your communications strategy can sound formidable, off-putting and energy sapping. So don’t think of it that way. Split such projects into phases, and determine the next steps to take each stage forward. That way you create easy wins that you can tackle even when energy levels and time are low. Make it all low-hanging fruit.

Stop doing things

Because you’ve always done certain things is not a good reason to carry on. In coaching I often ask non-profit managers if they agree that when someone working to full capacity takes on an extra project they must drop an existing one at the same time. Many agree with the principle, but then start saying, “it’s not always practical….. ” Listen to yourselves, people. If it helps, start the opposite of a to-do list—a not-doing-any-more list—to remind yourself of what you’ve given up.

Play to your strengths

Know what you as an individual are good at, and what your staff and colleagues are good at. Then concentrate on improving those skills. Waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. As the late, great Peter Drucker argued, it takes far more energy and far more work to improve from incompetence to low mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence. You cannot build performance on weakness.

Learn to type

If you use a keyboard on a regular basis you should be touch-typing. Really. It is painful to watch highly-paid people searching for keys, constantly backspacing and cursing. The intrinsic challenges of your job are probably hard enough. Do yourself a favour and develop the skills to do the mechanical things quickly, effortlessly and accurately.

If you can’t learn to type, find workarounds wherever possible. Use a digital voice recorder for notes, a touch screen for getting around online. Whatever, get to do it well.  You wouldn’t be impressed with a plumber or joiner who couldn’t handle their basic tools. Why are knowledge workers different?

Find out what kind of timewaster you are

Ask your team to tell you honestly about the ways in which you waste their time. Another wonderfully simple but far-reaching piece of advice from Peter Drucker. ” Effective people have learned to ask systematically and without coyness, ‘What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to your effectiveness?’ To ask such a question, and ask it without being afraid of the truth, is a mark of the effective executive.”

If you can’t do this, don’t despair. On the positive side, you have just identified what the military call a target-rich environment – a whole area of managing for you to productively engage with.

Create a brain-dead task list

It’s getting to the end of the day, after a string of back-to-back meetings. Or you’ve just delivered a challenging presentation, or had a long session with the accountant. You’re zonked, your brain is mush. So what do you do? You pull out the list you always have with you of significant but low-wattage tasks. You could be purging dormant files, transferring dates from your organiser, or ploughing through some routine phone calls. The key is to make sure that your task list is complete in itself – for instance with the names and numbers you need to call. Anything you get done in such unpromising conditions will feel like a bonus, and help recharge your batteries.

Trade secrets: negotiating fees

I had an excellent time earlier this week talking to a group of people considering working as freelance consultants. Money cropped up. As it does. Specifically, people wanted to talk about how to quote for jobs. The focus was not so much on how you decide what to charge. It was more on the mechanics of the fee discussion. In the interaction with the client, how do you avoid overbidding and risking losing the job? How do you make sure you are not undervaluing yourself through lack of confidence?

Below are some of my trade secrets. They are rules of thumb gleaned, devised and adapted over the past couple of decades. They are for guidance, not to be slavishly applied. They apply to the kinds of work done by consultants in the non-profit sector. They’re about one-to-one, informal negotiating with a new client, not the quite different business of tendering formal bids.

If the size of your invoice doesn’t embarrass you, you’re not charging enough. A highly-successful and determined freelance journalist taught me this many years ago. It’s an upbeat, cheery encouragement for those among us who worry about asking for large sums of money. In our culture it’s generally embarrassing to talk about money at all. It is particularly difficult to talk about the value of a piece of work in direct cash terms. Think about employees you have known and a typical working pattern. How would they feel if they had to submit a written request for their agreed salary at the end of the day or week? Would some of them feel a bit embarrassed some of the time? You bet. Given we’re all working in the same world, it’s unreasonable for freelances and consultants to downgrade their earnings because they don’t keep them largely secret, as employees do. Be bold.

I do quick, I do good, I do cheap. Pick any two. It’s an old favourite, and still useful. Sometimes I say it out loud to clients. It’s a light-hearted way to make a point. Other times it’s just a useful reminder. Jobs often come along with crazy deadlines attached. If you agree to get someone out of a hole by a fast turnaround, make sure you charge more for it. Likewise, be grateful for a job that has no tight schedule and build up goodwill by doing a good job at a bargain price.

In negotiations, whoever mentions a figure first loses. Why? Because that party will never know if the other would have accepted something more favourable. Ask for £800, and if the client readily agrees you’ll be forever wondering if they would have happily paid £1,000 or more. This is by no means a disaster, but it can leave you with a nagging dissatisfaction. On the positive side, if they offer a figure first, you can keep quiet about the fact that you would have willingly done it for less. If they offer a figure that is much lower than you were thinking, that’s your chance to adjust your vision of the job and pare down what you were planning to offer. How they value the work is good for you to know sooner rather than later.

Offer a range of figures. If it becomes awkward, if you are under pressure and feel you have to come up with a price, offer a range, not a single figure. Maintain vagueness as long as you can, indicating that there are many variables and more than one way to deliver the goods. Try to get to the point where you are discussing the fee together, making a common decision that suits both parties. Negotiating a fee is not – despite the previous tip – really about winners and losers. Win—win is the atmosphere you are aiming to create.

Ask what budget the client has allocated for the work. Simple and direct. And potentially very, very revealing. Respond helpfully to the disclosure of a figure by reassuring the client that you can work within it. When it comes to your actual quote, preserve a safety buffer for the client’s emotional comfort. Yes, they are likely to have already knocked off a percentage – but there’s no harm in adding to it. You should be thinking of this as the beginning of a mutually profitable, long-lasting relationship. It’s not one where you have to grab all the goodies at the start. Your warning antennae should be bleeping if the client doesn’t seem to have a budget, doesn’t want to give even a rough indication, or gives a hopelessly unrealistic figure. Some potential clients are fantasists and wannabes who will be trouble all along the way. Much better to see the signs early rather than late.

Meetings, lovely meetings

It’s a bad idea to schedule automatic regular meetings. So some people argue. They distract people  from potentially productive work. They’re likely to end up as mere “posting” or information-sharing sessions. They are often massively resented by staff.

There’s a good short discussion of them on this 99% blog post. First up is a solid instrumental approach. “If you leave a meeting without action steps, then question the value of the meeting,” is the recommended rule of thumb.

What’s interesting is the counter-argument in the comments, which raises the intangible benefits of even the dreaded mandatory Monday meeting.

It brings people together, reminds them they are part of a unit, and that there are goals and purposes to this unit. It doesn’t matter if people say they hate them. ….there are many intangible benefits to getting everybody together for “posting.” I’d go so far to say the more hectic and chaotic the more regular Monday meetings matter.

Who’s right? They both are. What’s important is clarity and control about the meeting. If it is an action meeting, make sure it works as that – and adopt the habit of quickly reviewing everyone’s action points at the end.

If you think it is important to get people together regularly to check in with each other or just for warm, fuzzy human contact then that’s fine. Just focus on that. Don’t do dreary information-sharing or pretend decision making. Accept it as time-out from the daily routine of work (which is important in itself) and maximise the opportunity to build relationships, refocus, remind each other what the team is all about. That, especially if it’s short and positive, can turn regular meetings into a very useful way of spending time – without people hating them.

Easy as peeling peas

Professional chefs don’t peel and chop an onion, get it sweating in a pan, then scratch their heads and think about preparing garlic, peppers, mushrooms or whatever to go with it.

They know what ingredients and equipment a dish needs. They get them ready before they start. (Or get someone else to do it.) They don’t pause during cooking to squeeze a lemon. The lemon juice is there, ready when they need it.

In a kitchen that preparation is called mise en place. It’s literally “putting in place”.

Why do chefs work like that? Consider, as you read this list, that the principles hold just as well for non-chefs, doing any kind of work.

  • Preparation forces you to think through, carefully, and in advance, what a job entails. That’s a chance to eliminate non-essentials, refine and improve what you do need, and pre-empt mistakes.
  • By doing what can be done ahead of time you’ll be more focused, confident and able to deal with fast-moving events when the heat is on.
  • Being organised means you’ll get the task done faster, neater and with less stress.
  • You’ll create obvious opportunities for delegating discrete parts of the job, involving team members and helping build their skills and understanding.

A valuable spin-off of breaking projects into identifiable and discrete processes is that you can get to enjoy them for their own sake. Instead of being a tiresome chore on the way to your goal, they become a potential source of satisfaction and professional pride.

Here’s one meticulous cook and writer, Peter Hertzmann, growing very lyrical about his Zen-like approach to a task of apparently great tedium. He was assigned to peel some peas. Yep, that’s peeling garden peas, taking off the thicker outer membrane of the pea after they’ve been podded and blanched. (It’s a serious cookery thing.)

The cook that passed the task to me apologized profusely for his actions, but he was happy not to do it himself. It’s not a difficult process. A small nick is made in the skin of each pea with a knife — a bird’s beak knife worked well — and the skin comes off by squeezing the pea slightly. The contents without the skin taste much sweeter than the whole pea with the skin. Your fingers become increasingly gummy and slippery as the starch from the peas coats them, and frequent rinsing only seems to help a little. The main problem is that it takes about two hours to peel a quart of peas. The task can be quite tedious. For some reason, it wasn’t tedious for me. Maybe because I ignored the overall goal of completing the job and instead concentrated on each individual pea. It became important for me to do the best job I could on each individual pea — to get the skin to “pop” with the smallest possible nick of the knife — to get the skin to release its contents gently into the basin the skinned peas were destined for and not to shoot them across the room. As I completed the peeling of each pea, I observed quickly the results of the process and attempted to make minor adjustments so the next pea would be peeled a little better. When I had completed peeling the whole quart, I was actually disappointed to be done. The chef mentioned that I seemed to be very calm.

From a long article on mise en place on  Hertzmann’s website.

Learning to work quickly and efficiently, with care and pride, can transform any mundane job – collating sets of figures, making routine phone calls, proofreading a report, photocopying, purging dormant files, writing minutes…. As long as the task is purposeful and necessary, mastering it can bring satisfaction and reduce stress.

Take back your lunch

A tweeter asking for recommendations for good places for lunch reminded me of the wonderful “take back your lunch” movement.

As Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project says, “We’re meant to move between spending energy, which we’re really good at, and renewing energy, which we don’t do enough of.”

So have lunch. If you’re not sure how to do it, relax. The video below explains how, in three easy steps. You can join a load of US workers who are pledging to do it every Wednesday over the summer. Or just do it to please yourself, as often as you want. Whatever which way, take back your lunch.

Tony Schwartz: “If you do, you’ll return feeling renewed and refreshed, and you’ll be way more productive.”

Unhooking from email

Does this sound familiar?

When you finish one task, you might find yourself opening up your inbox to see what’s waiting. You’re checking email because you’re not sure what to do next – and emails provide a convenient excuse not to think.

How about checking emails because you want something to brighten up your day?

…you log into your email because you’re hoping there’ll be a goodie there for you. It doesn’t matter that there usually isn’t – the randomness of it makes it even more compelling.

The insights into common email practices come from a well-considered blogpost, Why You’re Hooked on Email – And Five Ways to Stop, by Ali Hale. Her points will strike a chord with many, &  her solutions are more thoughtful than most.

How much did that meeting cost?

Imagine a clock designed for meetings. It tells the time, which is handy. But it also keeps a running tally of the cost of the meeting in staff salaries. As the minutes tick away, so the total sum rises.

It’s a thought that must have occurred zillions of times to people as they see highly-paid staff trapped in interminable, unproductive discussions.

A US company has done something about it, and is marketing a portable timer that calculates the cost. With Bring Tim, you key in the number of people at the meeting, and a guesstimate of the average salary. And watch the dollars mount up.

Rewards don’t work

When it comes to motivation, rewards don’t work that well. They can be good for purely mechanistic tasks. But if there’s a degree of cognitive skill in the task, a larger reward will lead to poorer performance.

Got that? Offer a large reward and performance drops.

Dan Pink, author of bestselling book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, admits this sounds like a weird socialist conspiracy. Except that it was the finding of research funded by the US Federal Reserve Bank, which is not a hotbed of radical conspirators. Nor was it a one-off, anomalous experimental result. The apparently counter-intuitive finding has been replicated many times by economists, psychologists, and sociologists, says Pink.

Money is not a motivator. True, if people are not paid enough, they won’t be motivated. But if they are paid enough, money ceases to motivate.

So what does motivate people? The secret to high performance isn’t rewards and punishments, says Pink, but an unseen intrinsic drive. “The drive to do things for their own sake. The drive to do things cause they matter.”

Dan Pink identifies essential separate but interdependent elements:

  • Autonomy, the desire to be self-directed. Management’s task is to get out of the way.
  • Mastery, the urge to get better at stuff.
  • Purpose, the need to feel that what you are doing contributes to a greater good that you value.

Pink gave an entertaining Ted talk developing this, below. Or if you like a shorter version, based on a ten-minute talk he gave to the RSA, complete with quick draw animation, try the one below it.

Make your job easier

When I say I can help improve their productivity, some people get uncomfortable. Productivity is not a cuddly term in the non-profit sector. So instead I say I can help make their jobs easier.stress - image by protego

They tend to like that. It’s more understandable. And also more accurate.

So here, as the first of an occasional series, are five tips that might help make your job easier. Adopt them, modify them, and if they don’t seem useful, ignore them.

  • Get another monitor. Only useful for people who spend a lot of time at a computer. It stops you covering up your active work so much with reference or other material. You can use your second screen to browse the internet, check emails, read a pdf document or whatever. Meanwhile your work-in-hand stays visible in front of you – keeping you focused and cutting distraction time.
  • Create a stop-doing list. That’s like a to-do list. Except that it contains things you used to do but aren’t going to anymore. Listing them means you have accepted that taking on new projects and doing them well means dropping some things to make space. It also raises the spirits to be reminded of stuff you don’t have to worry about anymore.
  • Find out where your time goes by keeping a time-tracking log. This is standard advice for anyone struggling with financial problems. Knowing where the money is going is crucial to working out a realistic budget. Discovering exactly where the money is going usually contains some surprises, even for people who think they already know. The same is true of work and time. The mere act of keeping a log is likely to cause you to tighten up on some of the waste.
  • Never leave a read email in your inbox. This might sound like making your life more difficult, rather than easier. But for most people it’s a change of habit that repays the effort. Deciding what to do with an email now, and then doing it, won’t take as long as you think it will. The pay-off is that you’ll avoid building up a backlog of hundreds of emails that you feel guilty and stressed about and that one day you’ll have to work late to plough through and clear.
  • Take a look at the list of things you’re working on and identify the jobs that repel you. Work out why you find them so unappealing. Thinking about why you don’t want to do something will point you to what you can do about it. That might be to clarify it more precisely, redefine it, stop doing it, or delegate it. Or just make peace with the idea that you have to do it. Whatever happens, you should feel better about it.

Different problems, same solution

Here’s two common problems:

  • Task avoidance. You know what you should be doing. But you don’t do it. It gets embarrassingly overdue. Shame & guilt lie heavy. But still you can’t get started.
  • Perfectionism. You’ve already put hours and hours more into a project than you should have. But it’s still not done. There are final adjustments. You’re waiting on some critical element. You can’t let it go.

They look like very different problems. Yet the same solution can work in each case.

You set aside an amount of time – which can be quite brief, as little as half an hour or less. You commit to doing something on the project, but only for the agreed time period. To emphasise that, you set a timer. When it goes off, you stop. You get on with something else. If necessary you set aside another short time period to work on it again.

Before long, the problem’s disappeared. Avoiders find they’ve progressed the job. Perfectionists find they’re ready to sign it off.

The method is known as time boxing. There’s no shortage of analysis as to why it should work. Procrastinators discover that the task wasn’t actually so bad. The anxiety was all in their mind. Avoiders get a reality check about how long they’re spending. That objective view provides what they need to move on.

Dave Cheong has a thoughtful post on it. Merlin Mann has a typically knockabout approach, suggesting very short dashes – even as little as a minute.

Luciano Passuello calls time boxing the most effective time management tool he knows of. And has the  neat idea of ending the time box period with a downloaded round of applause. Or maybe not.