Category Archives: Productivity

5 Ways To Avoid Email Distractions At Work And After Hours

Email was among the first waves of IT innovations that revolutionized the speed, delivery and volume of written emailcommunication. Even though many have predicted its demise, email is still with us and continues to be invaluable — but, it also can cause countless headaches.

At work, it’s hard to concentrate on the task at hand with the constant pinging or dinging of incoming emails. While many complain about the number of time-wasting messages, protesting seems futile: It’s part of the job — I’ve got to deal with it! That’s certainly true in jobs and industries that are extremely time-sensitive like breaking news journalism, emergency response or international financial markets.

During off hours, we have trouble recharging and being fully present with our loved ones because intrusive work and private messages follow us wherever we go. Again, for some people rapid email response is part of their job description or required by personal circumstances and little can be done to change that.

However, not everybody needs to monitor their email 24/7 and fire up the keypad at a moment’s notice. Given the scientific and anecdotal evidence that email overload is not only bad for employees but also bad for business, there have been very interesting suggestions and efforts on both the individual and the institutional level. Here are my favourites:

1 – Move to France. The country of joie de vivre is concerned that work emails after hours are detrimental to employee health and long-term productivity. So, parliament is currently discussing a law that would restrict off-hour email traffic.

Some German car manufacturers have also instituted ways of managing the curse of 24/7 emails. Daimler, for example, has a policy of deleting workers’ emails while they are on holiday. The sender gets a friendly request to resend the message post-vacation, or, in case of an emergency, to contact specific personnel.

2 – No email Fridays. Many companies are trying to stem the flood of distracting emails by introducing policies that make certain times or days email free. Instead of deleting irrelevant emails and filing marginal missives, employees can focus on deeper and more creative thinking and on getting things done.

There is even a movement #NoEmailDay that started on 11/11/11. Its proponents advocate drastically reducing the use of email in general and many go as far as to suggest moving all written communication to social media instead. You can join the NoEmailers this year on 6/6/16 and celebrate your very own No Email Day.

3 – Manage expectations. As a supervisor you can lead by example. Communicate your preferences for more efficient and less invasive emailing. Reinforce your policies with positive mentions of people who follow them. You might even want to have a private word with anybody who consistently ignores your email etiquette.

When there are no formal company or departmental guidelines, decide on your own email preferences and talk to your colleagues about them. Starting a conversation about how to maximize the usefulness of email could lead to surprising improvements.

4 – Turn off email notification on all devices and decide on specific check-in times. Unless standing by is part of your job description or you are waiting for an urgent email, there is really no need to get reminded that your inbox just grew fuller — again. Those visual and auditory cues are extremely distracting. Like any focus switch, you lose concentration and irrelevant thoughts can disrupt your flow.

Instead, dedicate specific times to email checking and writing. What are your high-volume times? What are your high-importance periods? When are you most effective in checking and/or answering emails?

You might decide to check on the half hour or only twice a day. It all depends on your job description and your preferences. Devise a similar flow for private emails. Then communicate your preferences to those who matter.

5 – Schedule work modules on your calendar and mark them busy. Working with modules has been very helpful to my clients. By blocking 30-60 minute blocks of time for clearly defined tasks, they are able to focus their energies and their minds without losing flexibility.

For example, if you are working on a large project such as a book, you might want to schedule 60 minutes a day four times a week. Then drop them into your calendar wherever it best suits you. Repeat with other tasks and responsibilities to get a realistic sense of what you can achieve in a day.

If you share your calendar, those blocked productivity times signal to others that you are not available. It also provides a reasonable explanation for why your response time was more than 30 seconds.

Some of these techniques work equally well for other distractions like social media. What are your favourite methods of managing email overload?

(First appeared on Huffington Post on May 16, 2016)

4 Strategies to Reboot When Business Gets Slow

(First published on the Freelancers Union blog.)

In many industries the beginning of the year has been frustrating. For example, two of my corporate clients decided to cancel large projects that had been scheduled months ago. A huge loss! What to do?

productivity, slow business, increase businessThe most obvious short-term focus is on connecting and nurturing existing clients. Contact them, see how they are doing and if they need your expertise right now. Offer something engaging that fits your industry, business and/or personal approach.

But don’t spend all your resources on your existing business. Seize this precious opening to think big, create something new and take care of yourself!

Since I have been through these cycles before and coached my clients through similar experiences, I find that there are 4 basic strategies that help putting your business on increasingly firm ground for the future.

1. Think long-term

When business is slow, you finally have an opportunity to think long-term business strategy on a whole new level. You can dedicate a whole morning to competitive research. In the afternoon, identify low-hanging fruit that you have overlooked. And tomorrow you can focus on new clients you need to groom in order to sign on.

2. Expand your offerings

This is also an opportune time to create new services and products or enhance your reputation as an expert and industry leader. If you are like me, you probably have lots of ideas for exciting new service packages, groundbreaking eBooks or valuable online courses bubbling to the service on a regular basis.

Work on several of them if they are still in the development phase. However, if you have a project that’s already advanced, use this quiet moment to focus on finishing it and getting it ready to go to market. If the market isn’t there yet, pick another project that has more potential.

3. Learn new skills

Invest in your education and skills. If finances are tight, focus on self-development that is easily available online or through organizations like Freelancers Union or industry associations. Another fun way to acquire new capabilities is to create strategic learning partnerships in which you teach others what you know well and vice versa. Just make sure it’s an even deal.

4. Take a break

Take a breather and re-energize. I know, it’s a challenge to not hustle even more than usual to generate business when the going gets tough. BUT exhausting yourself comes at a cost – your health and productivity. Instead, remind yourself that business cycles will be on the upswing again soon and that you want to be ready to take advantage of the pent-up demand when it comes.

Again, tailor your rest and relaxation choices to your income flow. If a beach vacation or adventure travel are in your budget and on your radar, why not go now?

One of my favorite low-cost adventures is a staycation. Living in New York City, I’m assured to find something new and different all around me: Neighborhoods I haven’t explored; new food trends popping up; a small museum or art gallery that waits to be discovered. At the end of the day, I like to throw in a home cooked meal that picks up on the theme of the day. What tickles your fancy?

Come to think of it, these strategies are crucial during any business cycle. However, when times are slow, they are easier to put in place and make real progress on big picture planning and implementation. Why not take advantage? Now!

3 Spring Cleaning Principles For Busy People

Spring cleaning advice is sprouting up all over the Internet right now. Well, it is spring after all and old traditions that help rid us of winter’s gloom are very appealing. We all know that an annual deep cleaning ritual has both physical benefits — such as easier breathing and fewer bacteria; and psychological advantages — like stress reduction, better mental focus and a sense of achievement.

spring cleaning, improved productivity, productivityAnd don’t forget the environmental gains: having more space after throwing out old or broken things; finding, assessing and fixing problems; and recovering some of those objects that mysteriously vanished throughout the year.

But, honestly, who still has the time for that? To make spring cleaning more effective, efficient and tailored to your needs and values, I propose following these three principles.

1. Determine your order and cleanliness sweet spots. Most of us have different preferences when it comes to how color-coded our sock drawer should be, or whether the floors need to be clean enough to eat off of. I, for example, am very focused on tidiness while my partner is much more into hygiene. Before jumping into spring cleaning, be aware of where you stand and how much energy and time you can, and want to, dedicate to each preference.

2. Create cleaning modules of 60, 30 and 15 minutes. What held me back from doing the April rejuvenation in the past was the idea that I needed to do the cleaning in one big chunk. Eventually, I realized that a list of timed tasks (under 60 minutes each) that I can do first thing in the morning, after work or over the weekend hugely increased my productivity. Why not clean out drawers for 15 minutes after dinner? All these little accomplishments can add up to a cleaner and more organized house in a couple of weeks.

3. Only clean the areas of most impact. Doing research for this blog, I found lots of spring cleaning tips that are simply not viable when you have limited time — like dusting ceilings in every room. Instead, clean that dirty door handle that drives you crazy every time you touch it. That would probably fall into the 15-minutes module category. Why not quickly wipe a few other surfaces while you are at it? Addressing the messy and grimy hot spots in your house will be satisfying and motivating to continue on to the next cleaning module.

These are just some principles that can cut down on spring cleaning time without reducing the joy of living in a spring-fresh space. What are yours? I would love to hear your ideas. Please leave a message on the right hand side of this page.

The post also appeared on:

Huffington Post Canada

3 Ways To Productively Channel Spring’s Energy

(Also appeared on Huffington Post on March 28, 2016)

Spring is the time of renewal and high energy — a time of life bursting forth. Have you been feeling listless or restless lately? Why not fully embrace nature’s push to reinvent itself? You too can plug into the dynamism of the moment to get stronger, healthier and more productive.

Springtime, energy, productivity, 1. Immerse yourself in nature
For those of you who work in environments with recycled air and little natural light, going for a walk in green spaces or taking a hike in the woods can really energize you. Imagine taking a deep breath without choking on it and getting your heart pumping from exercise instead of anxiety.

It’s also a great way to start a workout regimen that doesn’t feel like work but rather like a stroll in the park. If you like more of a challenge: run, add some weights or use sticks. I use Nordic Walking poles in my local park. It’s surprising how many heads one can turn.

2. Eat seasonal fresh food
Fresh berries, greens and other seasonal produce are delicious offerings of spring that not only nurture the body but also the soul. If you’re unsure how to prepare or cook something irresistible and healthy for yourself or your family, the Internet offers all kinds of culinary support. From Canadian to Indian to Spanish cuisine; there are countless ways to prepare great meals with fresh food.

Another fun foodie thing to do is visit your local farmer’s market. They have made a comeback and often combine food shopping with social entertainment — including running into friends and making new ones. Why not enjoy it all?

3. Pick up a long-forgotten project
Like the beginning of a New Year, spring’s vigour can jump start an old project that has been neglected but that is still worth tackling. Want to finish that book? Start writing! Need to change jobs? This is a good time. Or maybe something around the house has been bothering you for a long time. Today is the day!

Once you have decided which goal to prioritize, make a plan. Depending on the size of your endeavour, you might need just a few minutes or a whole day to identify the steps and the sequencing of tasks. Even if you are only clear about the next thing to do, schedule the item on your daily planner and add an alarm for extra urgency. Nothing can stop you now!

7 Easy Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Dive into a Dreaded Task

Also appeared on Huffington Post Canada

Starting something you don’t want to do can be daunting. You aren’t unusual if you procrastinate when faced with a complex or disagreeable undertaking, such as that needed household project, looming end-of-year term paper or doctor’s prescribed weight loss program. But, when something needs doing, no matter how strong your aversion to it, procrastinating will only send you on a downward spiral of guilt and regret.

Procrastination can have many causes. From everyday postponements to time management issues to fear or even perfectionism, the reasons for delay undermine our energy for what needs to get done. The important thing is to get past this self-defeating behaviour that keeps you from diving into the task at hand.

Try these seven proven approaches to getting over the initial procrastination hump.

1. Assess the timeframe. Make sure you actually have to do the difficult or despised job right now. Often, we think we need to do something immediately when, in fact, it would fit in much better at another time. Pick a time when you are most able to focus and can devote enough time to make significant progress. Then, schedule it on your calendar and add an alert so you won’t forget it.

2. Weigh the pros and cons of completing the chore. Write down the benefits of finishing. How will you feel about yourself? How will other people treat you? What are the financial or health outcomes? Also, consider the negative consequences of not attending to the task. The conscious awareness of both the gains and losses can give you the necessary push to get started.

3. Break down the objective into small steps. Plan out the task in increments of 15 minutes or less. Both larger projects, as well as small unpleasant tasks, profit from chunking them down into smaller pieces. Who can’t spend 15 minutes on something complicated or dreaded? In addition, make each step as concrete and detailed as possible. Something that is clear in your mind can be much more manageable than a fuzzy notion of needing to do something.

4. Start with the easiest part of the chore. Even hated tasks can have some appealing aspects. Start with something agreeable as a way to build momentum for tackling the task. For example, if you need information from a colleague you enjoy before completing the project, start with contacting him or her. Or, if you like to shop, check what supplies you need for the task and take a trip to the store first. Then hunker down to get it done.

5. Challenge yourself to get past the tedious piece. Sometimes it’s not the difficulty of a chore, but its boredom factor that holds you back. In this case, create a challenge for yourself to help you get into flow. Record your speed; commit to just a little while longer; or create a reward system for completing different pieces of the task.

6. Use the 5-minute rule. Commit to working at the project for just 5 minutes (or 15, or 30, if it makes more sense). Once the time is up, you can stop without feeling guilty. In most cases, this little trick gets you over the initial hurdle, and finishing the task makes more sense than picking it up again at later.

7. Set boundaries around distractions. Once you start in on the project, keep your mind on your work. Don’t allow yourself to give into the many distractions that can derail your focus. Tell yourself that you aren’t allowed to do anything else besides the project at hand. Turn off your phone; close your door; ignore emails; and if your mind wanders to something else you need to do, make a quick note to yourself and return to your task.

What’s Your New Year Motto?

New Year's resolution, New Year Motto, goal settingEven if you made New Year’s resolutions or set specific goals for 2015, choosing a motto can focus your energies in more subtle ways. Concrete goals with actionable discrete steps are indispensable to achieve our objectives. Yet, joie de vivre cannot thrive on prosaic tasks alone. We also need some poetry in our lives. What motto could add color and charm to your 2015?

I have chosen just one word to inspire me this year: Action! OK, that’s not very poetic. But it feels very invigorating to me. It’s about movement and energy – I love feeling strong and capable moving through space. It is also about adventure and exploring new physical and mental worlds.

I think self-publishing my latest book Beyond Procrastination: How to Stop Postponing your Life will be my big adventure this year. It is constantly leading me into unknown territory that is both exciting and terrifying. I’ll keep you updated …

As life becomes more complex and the world around us changes big city, change management, modern lifefrequently and fundamentally, a New Year’s motto can orient us during times of uncertainty and indecision. What is my life about again? Action! For you it might be peace or health or laughter. Whatever sentiment you would like to use to highlight this year, make it your maxim.

Short phrases and quotes are great motivators and guiding stars as well. Here are some of my favorites:

We must become the change we wish to see in the world.
– Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi

Choose with no regret.
– Mary Anne Radmacher

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
– Joseph Campbell

You must do the things you think you cannot do.
– Eleanor Roosevelt

Do no harm.
– from the Hippocratic Oath

Be gentle first with yourself.
– Lama Yeshe

Marathon, productivity, procrastination, happy 2015Looking at these powerful quotes, I think I will add be gentle first with yourself to my initial motto.

Action! And be gentle first with yourself. (2015 here I come!)

Where are you headed? I hope our paths cross this year.

Happiness – A Mixed Bag After All

Happiness is a gift. Being happy all the time can be a curse. procrastination, good life, happiness, unhappiness, productivity, increase productivityPsychologists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener point out that happy people tend to be less persuasive, lazy thinkers and too trusting. For example, they don’t take the time to properly develop an argument and consider objections others may have. Life simply feels too good to work hard.

What’s even more surprising, the conscious pursuit of happiness can make us unhappy. The more we chase it the more it eludes us. You might have experienced this. Let’s say you go to a party that you’ve been looking forward to all week. When you get there, you still feel a little stressed because of work, but tell yourself to be happy and smile. That forced smile takes immense energy and probably depresses you far beyond the original strain.

And then there is the always-positive, always-happy boss cheerleading you on to higher and higher performance only making you feel harassed and demoralized. Hint: according to Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, commiserating with your employees when the work is tough and expectations unrealistically high, can be much more productive and emotionally uplifting than high fiving without a cause.

happiness, procrastination, productivity, performance, emotions, sadness
Banksy – New York City 2013

In general, our tendency to divide our emotional experiences into good and bad often leads us to prioritize happiness over fear, anger and sadness. We forget that those “negative” emotions serve important functions such as dealing with loss.

When a client asked me how I was feeling shortly after my mother passed away, I spontaneously answered, “Not bad often enough.” I was as shocked by this statement as she was. There was deep truth to it, however. Because I prioritized work over my grief, it took me much longer to get beyond the initial raw pain.

What’s the take-away? All emotions are important and have their rightful place in life. And, yes, when happiness strikes, embrace it with all your heart and offer the world your most dazzling smile.

Are you a 52/17?

Did you know that the most productive people work 52 minutes and then take a 17-minute break? This came out of a recent study, but frankly, it’s not surprising. (My mom used to persuade me to rest regularly – I was a bit of an overachiever in school.)

While these kinds of definite pronouncements based on aggregate productivity, breaks, time managementdata always make me a little wary, I absolutely agree with the basic message: work less to achieve more – within reason.

In my experience as a life coach, the exact timing of work and rest varies greatly from one person to the next. I always encourage my clients to find their own sweet spot when it comes to switching focus or stepping away from a task.

What is your most productive on/off ratio? Stick to it and you’ll see vast improvements in your productivity. In any case, you’ll feel much more focused and relaxed when working.