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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]

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]

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.

How To Achieve Anything

In order to achieve anything – and feel good about it – we must accomplish ‘stuff’. This can be goals we’ve set, solving big problems, or successfully handling crises. But how do we actually do this? How do we beat our goals, solve those tricky problems, or navigate the storms?

One small step at a time.

Those age-old sayings are not just fairy tales. More and more, I am beginning to realise the wisdom behind them.

“One may walk over the highest mountain one step at a time.”

Whatever your mountain might be, the biggest move towards the summit is by taking that first step. And repeating that step until you reach the top.

Along the way there will be many stumbling blocks, issues, and points of excruciating frustration. How do you get past them? Continue those little steps.

It is amazing how far we get just by continuing to walk. One foot in front of the other. Stepping, walking, climbing. It all needs to be done in order for our goals to be met. Our problems to be solved.

“If there is no wind, row.” Proverb

I used to view my situations as huge, confusing, impenetrable masses. With no possible way to get to the other side. I’d try this, or try that, but by the end of the day, there would be no success. No success brought disappointment. Disappointment brought demotivation.

However, by breaking up these masses into smaller clusters, things became easier. The focus of each cluster being on a specific aspect, I found I could now tackle the situations one piece at a time. As I worked through these clusters, slowly but surely, the main muddled mass of a problem would begin to wear thinner and thinner. And eventually dissipate.

Success! What a fantastic feeling.

“Change your life by changing your mind.” Jeff Goins

Now, how does this apply to you? Simple really. Whenever you are presented with a pressing situation, or want to achieve a massive goal, or some other massive weight you need to get off your chest, why not try break it down into smaller, more manageable, chunks?

These smaller pieces equate to the ‘steps up a mountain’ mentioned earlier. Smaller pieces are ‘easier’ to achieve. And once the first piece is achieved, you will gain the confidence to tackle the next piece, and the next after that.

“There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” Alexander the Great

What you can take away from this today is that no situation is too big for you to tackle and focus on smaller areas that you can achieve. Eventually (and before you least expect it) you will reach the successful outcome you are yearning for.

How To Focus And Churn Through Tasks Faster

You have a million tasks to get through. Many of them high priority, many of them not. Some of them quick and easy, others are most definitely not. You sit and ask yourself “Where the hell do I start?”.

So you pick a task, and start working on it. After a number of minutes, an email comes into your inbox. You have a look at it, and start working on that email. As you’re working on this new email, you have a thought about something else, and open up your browser to investigate further. You carry on like this for a while and before you know it, it’s been a couple of hours, you’ve been busy, but none of the tasks you started have been completed.

Does this sound familiar? It should. Most of us work this way every single day. We work work work, but don’t actually get anywhere. There is a way to work smarter, not harder. A way to start – and complete – tasks like a machine.

And that is by using focus periods to complete tasks.

In it’s simplest form, these focus periods are chunks of time that you set aside to complete a task, or set of tasks, that you have prioritised to be completed. You focus on the task, and only that task. No reading of email, no going off on a tangent when your thoughts wonder. Only. The. Task. At. Hand.

I recently discovered this method through my research for more effective productivity, and came across the Pomodoro Technique as well as a few similar concepts. The Pomodoro Technique is comprised of strict 25 minute sessions (or pomodoros), 5 minute breaks in between, and a 20 minute break every fourth pomodoro. However, in my daily schedule, this simply does not work. In turn, the method I use is a hybrid of the Pomodoro Technique, whereby I’ve adjusted the lengths of the focus periods slightly.

I personally find 25 minutes per focus period is just too short to accomplish any decent tasks. In turn, I use 35 minute chunks. I’m also not as strict on the breaks, as there isn’t a long enough period where I’m at my desk for a given length of time – either through meetings or assisting my team.

In summary, this is how I churn through my tasks. I’ve found a huge increase in my productivity since using this method. And I sure hope you can too.

  1. Specify a task, or tasks, you wish to complete in the focus period.
  2. Start the timer.
  3. Complete the tasks.
  4. Don’t get distracted by thoughts or emails
  5. NO DISTRACTIONS
  6. Have a 5 minute break after the timer has ended.
  7. Repeat as necessary.

TIP: A handy little application that I use for timing the focus periods is Focus Booster.

[image source: Dart by Asif Akbar]

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