helpgrowchange

Working in the pressure cooker

It’s been a week of hard deadlines. Half your team has been on holiday or off sick. You’ve taken up a new role in a completely new side of the business. And, to top it all off, it’s the time of month where people go crazy – billing time. That sums up my week, and probably a large proportion of yours too.

I had pressure to perform from my management, pressure to make an immediate impact in my new team, and ultimately pressure from the clients to know what I was talking about in order to provide them the best service possible. There was pressure, still, to perform the tasks from my previous role.

This got me thinking about pressure. How we react, and perform under intense pressure. Some people run and hide at the first sign of it, others will stick it out for a while and eventually crumble, while others still continue to work and push through to the end.

This is my completely scientific and methodical findings on pressure. (not really)

Reaction types

I am always amazed at how people work under pressure. In my mind there are two types of pressure; once-off, quick-developing situations (imagine services failing), and longer term sustained pressure (imagine too much work, too few people).

When the crap hits the fan, it’s always interesting to see who skulks into the corner, or who dives in to sort it out. I believe there are three types of people when it comes to this; The Vanisher, The Punisher, The Follower.

The Vanisher
The Vanisher is nowhere to be found when the going gets tough in the once off pressure situations. When pressure mounts, and more intense pressure is mounting by the hour (or minute), the Vanisher is the one making excuses, dodging decisions, and making their way to the exit.

They fair a lot better under sustained pressure, as they can perform their tasks during ‘normal work hours’. They will deal with the workload they can, having an excuse to get out of the extra work. Finding new employees is not in their job description.

The Punisher
The Punisher is a resilient beast. One that has courage to get stuck in and put in the all-night stints to get shit sorted. As the Vanisher begins to fade into the background, so the Punisher begins to lead the resolution of a once-off situation.

The Follower
The Follower has the same resilience as the Punisher. They are willing to put in the hard yards when trouble comes around. They may not be as gung-ho as the Punisher, or as skittish as the Vanisher, but the Follower adjusts their handling of pressure situations accordingly. Sometimes, when the Punisher is not around, the Follower will gladly take up the challenge to lead the resolution. I fall into this group

Going the distance

All three of the reaction types are capable of performing the work required, the difference is when a little thing called pressure enters the game. Which of these types of people go the distance?

The first to fall
The first to fall when there is sustained pressure is the Punisher. Why? Because they are like lions, completely awesome, but in short bursts of activity. They wear themselves out so quickly (from being awesome), that they are good for the real high pressure one-off situations.

The second to succumb
The second pin to drop is the Vanisher. Although the Vanisher will disappear when a once-off pressure situation develops, they can still perform under the longer term sustained pressure. However, this ongoing pressure eventually gets to them. They begin to think they shouldn’t have to have this constant pressure and that it’s unfair on them. They crumble, they complain, and they leave (again).

The third to (maybe) trip
The Follower understands their capability and how to pace themselves. They know when to fade into the background, and when to step up and when to put in the hard graft. The Follower can maintain the pressure in short bursts and for the long term. They relish the pressure, as they know it teaches them how to adapt, solve problems, gain vital experience.

Which one are you

There are benefits to each of these types of reactors. The world needs the Vanisher to be there for the day to day stuff. They’ll be sorting out issues, being innovative, and just as hard-working as the next guy. But only on their terms and within their job description.

The Punisher is needed as the go to person when tight deadlines need to be met, when intense situations arise, or simply to finish off something that needs to be done now.

Last, but not least, is the Follower. We are needed to be the bridge between the Vanisher and the Punisher, able to switch to high gear at any time.

Which type are you?

[Featured image: Daniel Go]

What World of Warcraft Taught Me About Life

I wasted many years of my life playing role-playing games (RPG’s) like World of Warcraft, Rappelz, or Baldurs Gate. I spent days upon days of my time trying to level up my characters by doing quests, dungeon raids, gathering resources to level up some or other skill or craft.

The wasted hours running from one end of the map to the other, completing quests, or waiting for other people. The wasted hours having to deal with immature people with overrated opinions on how the game should work. The number of wasted hours…were not really wasted.

Now that I’m older and wiser (I hope), I realise that these games can offer a lot to us, and our youth. I learnt a lot from these games, although my focus should not have been on the games, but real life.

First person shooter games can teach us about quick reflexes and co-ordination, while RPG’s teach us about strategy, planning, and working towards a long term goal. Let me elaborate.

You have to work to get what you want

To get anywhere in RPG’s, it takes a lot of time and effort. To reach the next level you have to complete a number of quests. To attain some gold, you need to gather resources to sell. To attain a new skill, you need to gain further experience.

It can get monotonous and boring rather quickly. A quest usually comprises of ‘go kill some monsters and you will get some gold and gear when you get back’. Over many quests, your character gains experience, gold, and skills that allow him to kill larger monsters and craft more intricate gear.

This sounds awfully familiar to our day-to-day lives. We go into work every day, do the same thing, get some money at the end of it. Over time we gain more experience, more money, and more skills. These skills allow us to perform our work better, take on more responsibility, and gain promotions.

There are no easy achievements

When you start a new character, the achievements come thick and fast. Your first kill, your first quest, your first level up. As you progress, though, the quests become longer, with more experience needed to attain the next level.

Somehow you don’t notice it, but all you’re looking at is the next level. It is par for the course that more experience is needed for the next level. You’re bigger, stronger, smarter – it should damn well be harder.

Bringing that back to life. When we start off in a new venture, the achievements come quick – the first piece of code written, the first product made, or the first sale. As you become more proficient, your sights are set further, and you don’t see the small achievements anymore, only the next challenge.

You can’t do everything

While your character moves up in levels during the game, certain skills can be acquired by selecting them from available skill trees. However, there comes a point when the branch on the skill tree splits. You now need to make a choice. Your character can’t do everything. You have to specialise.

Specialising in a skill tree allows certain advantages and disadvantages in battle. You might be quicker on the draw, but have less armour. Or you have more healing ability, but don’t hit as hard. The choice is important, you and your character need to know what you want to be and specialise in it.

The same goes in life. As we’re questing every day, gaining experience, money, and skills, there comes a point where we are required to specialise. How often do you see a jack-of-all-trades person achieving major success? The successful people know their stuff. They have specialised in fewer skills, rather than learning everything.

Take this with you

Even though I do feel I wasted far too much time on these RPG’s, I still believe there are some important life lessons that were learnt. In order to achieve greatness, you need to identify where you need to go, plan for it, and work your ass off to get there.

[Featured image: Flickr user foeck]

The 3 Worst Pieces of Advice I’ve Received About ‘Focus’

During my journey of learning how to be more productive and efficient, I have come across many websites containing some excellent advice, as well as colleagues having also given excellent tips. There are, however, many times where the advice has simply been awful, quirky, or downright stupid. Here are my top 3 worst pieces of advice I received on focus.

1. Keep a cluttered workspace

’A workspace, cluttered or not, does not affect focus.’

I laughed when I saw that statement. Clutter creates tension, anxiety, and a sense of non-clarity. You might be working on your desktop or laptop, not requiring anything from your actual workspace, but humans have this thing called peripheral vision.

We see our piles of papers strewn across our desk, the post-it notes, the coffee cups (and probably coffee stains too). These all form a picture in your sub-conscious that simply does not conform to applying focus when you need it.

2. Remove all distractions

’Close all other applications (including email), move to a quiet spot, put on noise cancelling headphones.

In today’s world of being constantly up to date and available, it is not feasible to disconnect from everything.It may be possible when you are by yourself at home, but at the office it is a different story. In an open plan work area, with a job that requires you to monitor emails or alerts, it is not conducive to remove all distractions.

We cannot close our email applications. We cannot put on our headphones. We certainly cannot disappear for hours on end to ‘focus’.

I say work with these distractions.

3. Focus for long periods of time

’Knuckle down, sit tight, and go for as long as you can, until you have completed your task.

No, that’s not how it works. The basic understanding is that humans focus best for small periods of time, with small breaks in between. The optimum time for any given period of work being between 90-120 minutes.

You can always try the Pomodoro technique, or the hack job that I work with every day.

My advice: Do what’s right for you

At the end of the day, there are so many techniques and suggestions on how you can work best. So many people promising they have the one-size-fits-all technique that will turn you into a productive ninja – focusing and judo-chopping through your tasks all day and all night.

But the truth is, there is no single solution. We are all different, and in turn, work differently. You have to find what works for you. This will probably be a hybrid of what you have found online, read in books, or seen your colleagues do.

Putting a piecemeal technique together, from experience and research, is how I got to where I am today. My colleagues often comment on how productive I am, but there is no secret to my methods. All I have done is learn from them and integrate it into my way of working.

I have read, watched, learned, and adapted my working style to suit me. This has meant that I can achieve a lot more in any given day. Not superhuman typing, not delegation, or even super speed (as some people might think). Just simple, effective management of my emails, prioritisation, and focus of the tasks demanding my attention.

[image source: Alex Trukhincc0]

Take Action

Stop complaining. Stop moaning. Stop blaming. None of these things have ever changed you, me, or the world. All they ever achieved was negativity and anger. There is only one thing that will change this world – no, it is not that hippy ‘love’ stuff.

Successful people do not complain about the things they have the ability to change, they simply change them.

When we are unhappy with a situation, it usually ends up with some bitching and moaning. We complain about how it makes us feel. We blame somebody or something for causing it. And we expect it to magically rectify itself so that we can get what we want.

That is not going to happen any time soon. Nothing will change until someone takes action.

Nothing changes if nothing changes.

For example, you could complain to customer service about your defect product. You could moan to your girlfriends (or boyfriends) about your useless partner. You could bemoan where you are in life now.

None of it will change without action.

You won’t get a refund without customer service taking action. Your relationship won’t change until you take action. You won’t get anywhere in life until you take action.

If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place. – Nora Roberts

You alone have the power to get yourself to a point where you are happy. It is tough. It takes guts. But if you want the product, relationship, or life you deserve, you need to fight for it. It isn’t going to be handed to you on a silver platter.

If customer service is not taking action, escalate up the management chain. If you can’t get through to your partner, dump him to the curb (and that’s what he deserves if he doesn’t want to understand you). Try something new in your life, take a step, challenge yourself.

I’ve already taken up too much of your time. Stop reading this now, and take action.

Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action. – Benjamin Disraeli

[image: Flickr user Piermario]

Working With Distraction

I’m writing this at 7:20 in the morning. I’m sitting on the couch while my two young sons run around the room, shouting and playing. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is airing on the TV. And the cat keeps nuzzling into my lap, knocking my arm while I’m trying to type.

This got me thinking about distractions, and working through them.

So many sources of information state that we should get rid of all distractions before we can work, write, create, or perform any sort of task.

This is the real world. There is no such thing as ‘no distractions’.

We have children, colleagues, emails, mobile phones, day dreams, open plan offices, the Internet. We can’t all retreat to our mountain lodge with only ourselves and the bare essentials.

We must learn to focus through the din.

Now, after I’ve dealt with crying children and wiping water off the floor, the TV show has changed to Little Einsteins. At least the cat has moved to the other couch.

Keeping your focus is difficult. When disturbed, you have to try keep your train of thought until you return to your task. Sometimes it is possible, sometimes not.

But what if your rhythm is a broken rhythm?

Accept the fact that there are forever going to be distractions. You will remain a lot calmer when distractions do occur, and regain your rhythm quicker. Not accepting it causes you to increase your irritation each time you are distracted. Your stress level increases. And with that, it becomes harder to focus.

Go with the flow. Take it as it comes. Be flexible.

My eldest son is now leaning on my shoulder, fidgeting, moving, talking to the T.V., as well as providing a blow by blow account of what is happening (to nobody in particular).

Split your focus between your task and what is happening around you. The distractions will ebb and flow like the tide. As the distractions lessen, apply more focus to your task. As they increase, become more open to the changing situation.

At home, it is difficult to apply the split focus as young children tend to demand more attention. But it is possible, with a lot of practice and patience – especially patience.

Managing distraction at the office is a different kettle of fish. I can usually focus more on the task at hand, and phase out the background noise. In a way, the office is a lot easier, as the distractions don’t require your immediate attention – unlike young children.

The trouble in the workplace is providing attention to people who tap you on the shoulder, phone calls, and emails. Similar to home, you must learn to temporarily store your train of thought while your focus is diverted elsewhere. This can be a troublesome task. Constantly switching channels between the task at hand, meetings, or interruptions.

Let me carry on while my son wipes his nose on my shirt, and the other scoots around the room.

The way to retain your task status mentally is to have ‘checkpoints’ while you are busy with the task. Simple mental pointers such as ‘I finished the section on resource forecasting’, or ‘all I have left in this statement of work are the financials’, or ‘I stated the history behind the situation, now I must explain to Jerry what I need’.

Mental checkpoints will help you remember where you were before you were distracted. All you need is a pointer, a single reminder, and you will remember how far you got. Your brain is smart that way.

I’ve just had to break up a bickering session between the kids, advising them what sharing is, and how to do it. One tantrum by the youngest, and one sulking session by the eldest.

How to work with distractions:

  • Accept the fact that there will be distractions.
  • Be adaptable and flexible.
  • Be aware of what is happening around you. Apply focus when distractions are low.
  • Have consistent mental checkpoints while busy with your task.

Distractions are a pain in the ass. Accept the fact you will have them, and your day will be so much more productive.

And after all is said and done, both boys are with me on the couch, where they are receiving some parental love. Time for me to go onto my next task – some rough and tumble with my boys. And I’ve accepted the fact there will be distractions…

[image: Craig Garner]

Say No To Be More Productive

I like to be busy. Many tasks constantly taking up my time, so that I can immediately move onto the next one as soon as they complete. I am pretty sure you feel the same way too. We love the thrill of being ‘busy’. Being busy shows that we are working. We are doing many things for many hours. This model, however, cannot sustain us for very long. It drives us to stress, tiredness, and finally burnout.

Previously, if someone asked me to perform a task for them, I would try fit it in as best I could. I didn’t like saying no. Over time, I would find myself stretched thin, and not providing quality to the task at hand. I was a ‘Yes Man’, the ‘Go-to Guy’, the person who ‘would do it for you’.

No more. It took me a few years, but I came to the realisation that this simply wasn’t good enough. Yes, it felt good to be the main man who could solve all your problems. All I was doing, though, was hampering my own workload.

No matter how efficient, meticulous, or productive you are, there is always a limit to the amount of work you can perform before the quality takes a dive. It is a slippery slope once this starts to happen. People start losing trust in you. They start doubting the value you have previously provided them. And they will lose respect for you and your work ethic. The very things you have worked so hard to attain by saying ‘yes’ to everything.

Trust and respect are extremely important. Everyone is your client. You are serving them by acting on their requests. In the same breath they are serving you. You want them to come back and request more service, and we all know that a returning client is the best client. By continuing to serve and provide for them, their trust and respect for you will grow, and so too will their loyalty. All these factors combined will get you a long way when something doesn’t go right, or the shit hits the fan. Always try to maintain trust and respect in all your encounters with your clients. (But I have deviated, let’s carry on)

Before letting your quality take a dip, try saying ‘no’ to the next person that asks you to perform something for them. Ok, not ‘no’ outright, but in a way that resets their expectation. Something that I’ve found that works well is; “Sorry Beryl, I’m quite snowed under at the moment, but I could get this to you by Friday?”; or “How urgent is this, Drew, I have some other things I’ve got to finish first, then I can get this to you?”.

By aligning their expectations, you can then slot the new task in to the list you currently work with. You don’t sacrifice the current task you’re on. You won’t lose respect. You’ve set the expectation with the person that asked you for the task. And everyone is a happy family.

It is vital to understand your own workload. It is no use setting the expectation with Beryl that you will have her request done by Friday, when you know full well that you will only be able to finish it next week Wednesday. Doing this is just as bad as saying ‘yes’ all the time.

Be honest with your clients. Although some might get irritated or disappointed, they will all appreciate the honesty in the end. In future dealings, they will know that when you tell them ‘Friday’, it will be Friday. And if you don’t deliver what you promised, there will be a damn good reason for it.

What I’ve told you here, is from my personal experience. And to re-iterate, I believe the main factors are;

  • treat people with respect, and they will return it
  • be honest when setting expectations
  • keep true to your word
  • if you can’t meet those expectations, reset them earlier rather than later
  • and be friendly at all times. Having a bad attitude will reduce the respect people have for you.

Don’t be afraid to say no!

Footnote: If you are looking for some guidance on how to manage your tasks and workload, try using your most used tool during the day – your email application. I explain how to do this in my book, as well as here, and here.

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