The Productivity Map vs the Procrastination Trap

When you have a “real job” your productivity is driven largely by external demands, appointments and deadlines. When you start working for yourself it’s entirely up to you to drive your own productivity; on one hand it’s great to be free of those external demands, on the other it’s harder to maintain momentum without them. So I’ve been reading up on productivity, the consensus is that there are three elements to high productivity.

The Productivity Map

1 Clear Goals and Priorities

The first step is knowing the big picture of what you’re trying to achieve, defining what are the important steps you need to take to reach that. With your priorities defined you can move to planning.

I have a month by month set of goals, which can be broken down into activities to be completed each week, and from that I can build a daily plan.

Knowing your priorities will also help you say “no” to all those requests that can derail your good plans, here’s how Kristin Muhlner, CEO of NewBrand Analytics thinks about saying no to things at work.

This is about sustaining focus on results over the longer term, not about boxing yourself into a single path. If it turns out that priorities need to change, then change them. But make the decision and then change, don’t just drift onto a new path.

2 Plan

Set out a plan for your month, week or day. Find a system that works for you and stick to it.

There are all sorts of techniques out there, from productivity planners to the Pomodoro technique, to Get Things Done or the Seinfeld method.

Which method you use will depend on your personality and your business needs. Back when I had a company job the Get Things Done method worked because there were enough external deadlines to drive me forward.

If you need an easy way to time activities Google spreadsheets and calendar offer a free add-in that will help, I made a timesheet video guide on how to set that up.

I now use an adaptation of the productivity planner and I plan a week’s overview and then plan priority tasks per day in 30 minute chunks. I do a weekly review and plan session on a Friday morning which lets me relax over the weekend with the feeling that everything is under control (ha!).

3 Monitor Progress Honestly

Productivity is about what gets done, not just following a timetable so you need to monitor your output. Be honest with yourself, and remember that part of this is to refine your planning process. Look at what got done as well as what didn’t. Acknowledge any disruptions that put you off your game.

I check at the end of each day what I got done, and make adjustments for the following day. On Fridays I review the week and give myself an arbitrary “productivity score”.

I have a wide optimistic streak which has a big upside, but the downside is I tend to somehow thing I can do five 3 hour tasks in a day so right now part of my monitoring is around the time taken to complete tasks so that I can get better on these estimates. I am timing the writing of this post, for example, it’s not strictly necessary but in creating estimates for a client accurate time estimates are important so it’s a good skill to learn.

The Procrastination Trap

Ellen DeGeneres gives a perfect example of what procrastination looks like, I’m sure  you’ll recognise it.

If you watched it you may be one of life’s natural procrastinators, welcome to the club. There are lots of reasons we procrastinate, sometimes we talk ourselves out of the hard tasks, sometimes we just get distracted – like a cat seeing a lazer light.

Setting goals and monitoring them honestly will help you build productive habits that will edge out the procrastination habits. But there are a couple of things to do in addition to this.

1 Remove distractions

Close email and social media sites, and remove notifications. There’s nothing more likely to distract you than that little flag saying “read me, you know you want to”. Checking email/status updates is a known productivity killer.There are lots of tools to help you focus when working online.
I’ve taken the simple step of putting all my work stuff into one browser (Chrome), and all my personal stuff into another (Firefox). Of course I can still fall down an internet rabbit hole, but it is a psychological help.

2 Listen to music/Don’t listen to music

Whichever helps you focus, I know lots of colleagues who find listening to music lets them focus. Sometimes it can also be a welcome way to block out office noise in open plan offices.I prefer not listening to music, but sometimes it can help my concentration if there is a lot of other background noise.

3 Tackle the hardest/easiest thing first

Some advice suggests that you should plan to start with the easiest task or a pleasant part of the overall task. Maybe that will work for you – try it.

I prefer beginning with the hardest “biggest” task, and plan the easier or more fun tasks as a “reward”.

4 Reward yourself

A reward could be a break, a walk outside, 10 minutes of facebook time, a good cup of coffee, a trip to the gym. It could also be one of the more pleasant tasks you need to do, for example, some online research for a conference to attend. Once you’ve defined your reward you can tell yourself “I’m going to finish this blog post by 11am and then I’m going out for coffee”, it’s a good way to trick yourself into focusing.

Productivity is about outcomes, but the way that we get there is by having a system that works and building productive habits. All the research I’ve found states that you need to maintain your own health, know your own goals, plan tasks against goals, monitor output, and break the procrastination habits. For me it’s a work in progress.

Image:  time via pixabay

Setting Annual Goals

 

At the beginning of each year most large companies ask all employees to set goals for the year. The tools and process vary widely between companies but there are some elements that are really consistent.

I’ve outlined the principles to follow, with background examples where I can find them.

Set S.M.A.R.T goals

The S.M.A.R.T acronym is often used as a guide or even a requirement by companies. Even if it’s not required it’s a good way to think about goal setting. Here’s how the acronym breaks down.

Specific

Set out what the goal is including purpose or benefits, geographic scope, business scope,  and dependencies or constraints.

  • roll out programme B in EMEA markets, provided business case proves value in individual markets
  • increase sales across T category of products
  • evaluate process X, and plan improvements.
  • build network of experts in field P, across European markets
  • increase customer satisfaction

Measurable

Explain how progress will be measured. Measurement may be quantitative or qualitative. You could use sales data, website traffic, lead generation, marketing reach, survey data (including internal surveys). I encourage my team to focus on impact on the company, rather than counting tasks completed, but I try to make sure it’s still something easily measured and unambiguous.

  • roll out programme B in 60% of EMEA markets, provided business case proves value in individual markets
  • increase sales by 30%   across T category of products
  • evaluate process X, and plan improvements, goal is met when plan is delivered and 3 improvements have been made
  • build network of experts in field P, across European markets, with participation rates in online community reach 70%
  • increase customer satisfaction as measured by quarterly online survey by 5%

You can also include some “stretch” in the goals, particularly if your pay system has a variable component;

  • roll out programme B in 60% of EMEA markets, provided business case proves value in individual markets, stretch goal = 80%

Attainable

The goal should be something the you or your team can reach in the time frame given. It should not be extreme, as this would be demotivating. It should not be to easy, as this could reduce the drive and initiative applied to achieving the goal.

If you’re writing a set of goals make sure that the total list doesn’t exceed a year’s work. Make sure that each goal is proportional to the time it will require, if you have five goals each one should be roughly 20% of the time needed through the year.

Defining an achievable goal may include stating constraints or dependencies.

  • roll out programme B in 60% of EMEA markets, provided business case proves value in individual markets
  • evaluate process X, and plan improvements, goal is met when plan is delivered and 3 improvements have been made, note that this depends on budget being available.
  • increase customer satisfaction as measured by quarterly online survey, excluding any product recalls.

Relevant

Relevant goals are ones that deliver value to the company, department and team.  They should be aligned with the goals of leaders, peers and any sub-ordinates. The goals should also be appropriate for your seniority level, both in terms of complexity and impact on the company.

If goals set are relevant they will be meaningful and motivating for you.

Time-bound

Each goal should set out a timeline for achievement, this may mean breaking goal into constituent parts to specify timeline.

  • increase sales by 30%   across T category of products, by end October to meet sales planning.
  • evaluate process X, and plan improvements by end Q1, goal is then to deliver 3 improvements by end of year, note that this depends on budget being available.

It can be a challenge to get this right as an individual, and even more difficult when setting goals across a larger team, but it’s important to do it right. It’s good for the manager to have specific goals and alignment across the team, with each person knowing how they contribute to the big picture. And knowing your individual goals focuses your attention on what’s really important.

On a more practical note; setting up the goals well makes the performance review conversation much easier for everyone.

 

image goal

2010 Goals

I’ve met one deadline for 2010; I’ve set the goals for my team for the year. It had to be done by today.

We already had a team meeting to discuss the goals for the team in general, so next step was individual goals. We’ve agreed on performance goals and development goals for 2010.

I had a discussion with one member of the team, about how these goal setting and assessment systems are subjective and how frustrating it is.

How could I answer?

First of all it is true, the score he gets is based on one person’s assessment of his work, and as we’re not working in an environment with numerical targets there is a certain amount of . Secondly we set goals now as a best guess of what we’ll do in the year but, as happened last year, that can all change.

So I answered that there was always some element of subjectivity in any system and part of trying to make it fair was agreeing together on the goals. Then I explained my attitude to the goal setting process; set a range of goals, some which are regular business, some which are tougher, some which more of a best guess about what will happen in the second half of the year. I do this so that there is a full year of goals, some of which are sure to be achieved some of which will challenge the team member.

In terms of assessing the achievement I look at results. Yes, results-full-stop. Once I’ve done that I look back on the year and try to judge whether the goal was fair, or whether there were circumstances beyond our control that made it harder to achieve the goal. If it wasn’t I might have to adjust the assessment. In our system the goals are weighted so once that is taken into account a final score can be calculated. Then I think back on previous years and see if that score is a fair and consistent score. Of course each step involves a certain amount of subjectivity.

Then there’s a department-wide adjustment; based on the theory that we’re all on the same normal curve so you should have one team all scoring As and another all Cs. I find this a bit hard to take – it does mean that your best chance of getting a great score is to go and work in a rubbish team, but the idea behind it is around fairness and ironing out those super-generous or super-harsh managers.

Last year was a year of changing priorities, which meant that it was tough to meet existing goals in a changing environment. The thing that slipped was the development goals. I only spent a tiny part of my 2009 training budget, and there were/are some training needs. This year one of my performance goals is making sure my team get the training they need. If everyone follows through on the plans presented today that will be easy.

image goals

New Year’s Resolutions

What do I want to be different in 2010? I don’t make big “resolutions”, my world view is that life is a journey so you can take a step forward, or backward or change direction on any day. But the new year is a great opportunity to reflect on whether  I’m still heading somewhere I want to go, and determine whether some adjustments are needed.

Work

  • More balance in which goals I focus on, in 2009 I was very absorbed with one big goal, in 2010 I need to spread my time across all the goals of my team more evenly.
  • Learn more about communications, online communications, managing technology, managing other people and managing “up”. The first four of these area a continuation of what I’ve been learning for years, I know I like these subjects. The last one is more difficult for me, I know I need to “work the politics” more, and make sure I have buy-in before acting. I’m getting better – but it’s still a learning point for me. Mind you, having a manager who knows the online world is helping me a lot!
  • Keep delivering, I want to deliver more smaller results this year. This means better planning and speeding up our development cycle. We’re in a good position to do this in 2010.
  • More fun with my team, we’ve had a tough year, and 2010 will also be extremely busy as our company goes through a lot of change. I’m lucky to have a great team to work with, but I need to find some more ways to pull us together throughout the year.

Personal

  • More Writing, I started working on this blog seriously at the beginning of 2009, that’s going to continue, but I want to try more fiction writing. So short stories for a creative writing course, and another attempt at NaNoWriMo.
  • Learn to rollerblade, I’ve had such fun trying to ice-skate I’ve decided that the fun should continue in summer.
  • Travel somewhere I’ve never been before, I have two cities on my must see list; Istanbul and St Petersburg. But I’m also thinking about India, an online friend lives there and the superb photos she posts have got me inspired. She posted about the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi, which led me to look up Ganesh (pictured above). He’s worshipped as the god of education, knowledge and wisdom. He’s also the destroyer of obstacles, sounds like a handy guy to know.

image Ganesh 2009 /Pranav Yaddanapudi/ CC BY 2.0

Goal Setting

I’ve recently started swimming again, and I took my usual approach – think of the end goal and break up the goal and the time to create a plan to work up to it. In no time at all I was falling behind, feeling a failure and somewhat guilty. So I flipped it. I’ve now set myself a lower “must do” limit, and I challenge myself to see how far into “bonus” I can get. The result is interesting; I find I’m focusing more on technique, I feel successful, I’m enjoying the swim. (And I’ll still reach my goal).

This made me think about goal setting in other situations.

The common wisdom says you should set tough goals for your organisation, your team, yourself. In their 1996 article “Building Your Company’s Vision” James Collins and Jerry Porras invented the term “BHAG” standing for “Big Hairy Audacious Goal

A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.

Examples of BHAGs used to motivate successful companies;

  • Google: Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
  • Ford: “Democratize the automobile.”
  • Microsoft: “A computer on every desk and in every home.”

They’re all big and hairy, they’re all audacious. None of them are time bound, all of them are far in the future. They would all fail if strategies and tactics weren’t put in place to build the results to support the goal.

Done well they’re a source of inspiration, but all the talk of big goals and stretch assignments can be a little tiring, daunting even, at times. And if you’re on the receiving end of unsupported talk of the big goals it would be easy to become cynical.

I think some managers remember the big hairy audacious bit, and forget to build a strategy and plan the actions needed to get there.

DilbertGoals

There’s also some evidence that setting goals can lead to failure. In much the same way as I sensed I was failing when I stuck too rigidly to my swimming goals companies can fail when they stick too rigidly to their goals. One examply cited in recent research was GM’s dedication to “29” the market share percentage it aspired to for the early part of this decade. Dedication to this goal was a factor contributing to their failure, and ultimately its current near-bankruptcy status.

In clawing toward its number, GM offered deep discounts and no-interest car loans. The energy and time that might have been applied to the longer-term problem of designing better cars went instead toward selling more of its generally unloved vehicles.

It must be a serious issue because the guys of Harvard have been working on it and wrote a paper “Goals Gone Wild“, they list issues including goals that are too specific, goals with unrealistic timelines, goals with conflicting quality and quantity dimensions. They also point to specific ethical problems that arise when goals are set incorrectly giving examples such as Sears – where sales stretch-goals lead to overcharging, and the fraud at Enron. I’m sure they could now add plenty of examples from the current financial crisis.