Focus time & cruising altitude

Earlier this week, I quoted a software developer who posted this comment on Twitter:
Surgeon: This procedure will take three hours. Manager: Ok, I can give you from 9:00 to 10:00, 11:00 to 12:00 and 2:00 to 3:00. The rest of the day you’ll be in meetings. Ridiculous, right? Now, imagine the surgeon is a software developer.” 

Someone on LinkedIn suggested that this was OK since the three hours needed (in the software context) were still available that day. I wasn’t sure if their assertion was serious or not, so I offered the following analogy to clarify why these two schedules are so different.

Not all three hour lengths of time are the same. If it takes three hours to fly from NYC to Chicago, you can fly non-stop. However, you can also get there if you fly from NYC to Buffalo, then from Buffalo to Cincinnati, then from Cincinnati to Chicago. You still spend roughly the same three hours in the air, but it’s far less efficient. Getting into the work (not the same as starting it), then stopping to change focus for the meeting,  then switching back to the focus work and getting into it again (twice) is much like the three sets of climb out, cruise, descend.

Three hours in a single block is a bit different than three hours scattered across a single day. However, there are a few other considerations for anyone doing work that requires focus.

Non-stop is better for focus

If you flew for three hours from NYC to Chicago, you might have two hours at cruising altitude to get some work done or watch The Office.

If you flew from NYC to Buffalo, then to Cincinnati, then to Chicago, each of those three short flights are going to consist mostly of climb out and descent. You’re going to have very little focus time thanks to the short flight length and the hectic nature of a rushed in-cabin service. It’s likely that you’re going to find that time useful for reading, light analysis and little else.

In addition, you have to spend time boarding, getting off the plane, changing gates, and waiting for the next boarding window. If things go well, you won’t have a delay caused by a mechanical issue, weather, or the lack of a crew (it happens). Even then, you still have to “prep” for the flight: get on the plane, wait, fly, wait a bit more, then get off the plane.

It’s a lot like going to a meeting. Exit current task, meeting prep, meeting,  debrief / summarize, move to next task / meeting. 

Focus killers only need a toehold

The other thing about these breaks between those precious one hour segments is that they open the door to chaos. In other words, someone pulls you into a meeting, or you get distracted by someone who needs help with a problem, etc. 

Got a minute?” never takes a minute – and there are plenty of opportunities for got-a-minutes on the way to/from a meeting. Even if you work remotely,  the fractured time between your focus sessions are subject to this. 

One way to avoid this during your focus work sessions (even the short ones) is to put yourself in do-not-disturb (DND) mode on your phone, email, etc. Not everyone can do that, but if you can, do so. Despite that, there will be occasions where something serious could require your involvement. The big ones are tough to avoid. The little ones that wait… those are the ones you want to defer / delay during focus time. 


Meetings aren’t bad, but…

Meetings are often essential to make sure everyone is well informed, “on the same page”, and / or coordinated for the next effort. Yet meetings are often looked upon by the attendees as unproductive, expensive, & wasteful of employee time. 

Effective meetings have these characteristics:

  • Have an agenda.
  • Have one person keeping the meeting on agenda.
  • Include only those folks who need to be there.
  • Begin on time.
  • End on time.
  • Allow a few minutes to transition to the next meeting if attendees have back-to-back meetings.
  • Are summarized at the end to make sure there are no misunderstandings, misreads, or “I missed that”s. 

If the meetings you call don’t fit this profile, see if you can improve them one characteristic at a time. Meanwhile, do what you can to help your team get blocks of focus time. 

Procrastination is free, right?

If you’re like me, you have a list of tasks that need to get done – and some of those, you’ve put off. But then, the T-Rex of efficiency, git-r-done and productivity steps into your mindset and tears the place up. For many of us, procrastination is on par with an Olympic sport, even if we get a ton of work done. 

Mental friction

It isn’t that procrastination means you’re lazy, good for nothing, or less likely to win “Most likely to succeed”. It’s N-O-R-M-A-L. That doesn’t mean you should revel in it. Procrastination is mental friction. We have so many reasons for doing it. For example, it’s SO easy when the thing you want to do is something you hate doing. I mean really – who wants to do something they hate doing? It’s easy to let that puppy slide to next week.

Alternatively, you might not be very good at the things you procrastinate over – and that’s OK. Your superpower might be x or y, but doing z makes you feel incompetent. This doesn’t make you Looney Tune. It’s normal not to be a superhero at every single thing that it takes to run your business. It’s also normal to think you’re supposed to be that superhero.

After all, you started the business by yourself umpteen years ago and got it to where it is today (or close) with not much (or any) help. Naturally that means you have to keep being the superhero in all areas as your business grows 10X over a decade, right?

Sure it does. Not really. One of the biggest challenges to owners growing a business is having the mindset that they have the ability to do it all at $1MM or $2MM or $5MM in sales simply because they were able to do it all between zero and $300K in sales. How many plates do you think you can keep spinning at one time? 

I hate, so I procrastinate

We “hate” some work tasks for different reasons. Maybe you really do despise a certain type of work. But that isn’t all that makes you dislike doing it. It might be that you’re not confident about the work you do in that area, even if you are capable of doing it. 

If you hate doing a particular task or type of work – see if there’s a way to delegate or outsource it. This seems like an obvious thing, but I find this happening frequently out there in Procrastinationlandia. Seriously, if you hate certain work, we’re going to have this conversation again and again. Worse yet, YOU are going to have that conversation again and again. It sounds something like this: “Well, I really need to do some bookkeeping, but …” and then the voice in your head interrupts to belt out “Let’s get ready to procrastinaaaaaaaaate!” (Apologies to Michael Buffer)

Maybe you love bookkeeping, but your procrastination sweet spot is paperwork, preparing for presentations (even though you love the presentations), testing, ordering – whatever. It doesn’t matter what the most often procrastinated tasks area. It matters that you deal with them, somehow.  

Procrastination as a tool

A tool? I discovered this tactic recently via a podcast that I stumbled across while procrastinating between sets at the gym. Yes, that was ironic.

The idea is that your todo list for the day should (or must) include the number one thing (or things) that you’re procrastinating about. If you leverage the list of procrastinated items as your todo list, you’ll either run out of procrastinated work, or procrastinate a lot less. Get those things done and the pain shrinks, disappears or both. *That’s* the payoff. 

You see, procrastination has a mental price. It increases cognitive load, which comes at a price. The more you put off a piece of work, the easier it is to procrastinate over that item one more time. It’s been on the pile for 11 months, so what’s one more day?

Thing is, your brain doesn’t need more things to juggle. All of these little things add up and limit your ability to focus, to do good work (the stuff you haven’t put off) and in general, feel better. Think about how you feel when you get a long-procrastinated item done. 

Oh and that “like me” thing? It’s OK to admit it, but it can wait until tomorrow. 

The scary thing about artificial intelligence

The phrase “artificial intelligence” might bring politicians to your mind’s eye, but today, we’re talking about the real thing. Maybe you own an Alexa (or five of them), but I’m guessing many of you don’t have one. As with most “new” technologies, you’ve probably seen a number of articles that seem bent on inspiring fear about artificial intelligence (AI). Some of them forecast that AI is going to put everyone out of work, take over your life and eventually try to chase down John Connor’s mom.

Even Elon Musk has noted that our (society’s) failure to manage AI could have a bad outcome. Certainly, there’s quite a range of meanings for that phrase. I’m not so worried about Arnold’s metal, computerized alter-ego as some seem to be. My concern in the short term is more about taking advantage artificial intelligence in your business. As with any other technology, there’s the threat of wasting time and money by using it simply because it exists.

AI is already part of your business

Before we consider whether or not artificial intelligence has a place in your business, it might be worthwhile to accept the fact that it’s probably already there. Naturally, there are the obvious things like Siri, the directions providing parts of Google Maps, Waze and similar. They may not “feel” like AI, however.

For decades, software has assessed credit scores & determined risk for insurance underwriters. While that might seem boring to some, the folks in those lines of work still appreciate their value to the quality & accuracy of underwriting. They’re an important factor in insurance company profitability. To me, that’s like the feature of table saws that detect the touch of skin to the blade and stop it in milliseconds to avoid injuring the operator.  Cool, but not AI.

I remember seeing logs entering the then Plum Creek Columbia Falls mill a few years ago and being impressed at the laser-guided saws that assessed a log’s size and shape in an instant and then made initial cuts to maximize yield from that log. This sort of automation has been in place in large, highly-capital intensive manufacturing businesses for some time.

Small businesses have benefited from this sort of automation via CNC (computerized numerical control) driven routers and similar tools. While full-sized CNCs might be too expensive for smaller businesses, a Bozeman-based company makes reasonably-priced desktop-sized CNC.

Learning & problem solving

While all these things are cool, are they AI? The log sensing thing is the closest, but ultimately, the AI purist (there are always purists) might disagree.

Wikipedia describes artificial intelligence as:

when a machine mimics “cognitive” functions that humans associate with human minds, such as learning and problem solving.

Notice that “decision making” is not mentioned. All software makes decisions. A tool that can look at an apple and determine its variety (or its ripeness) based on a previously analyzed group of 10,000 apple images isn’t making decisions per se. It’s using AI based on the training it received by analyzing 10,000 apple photos. Every photo was associated with ripeness and species data.

When processing 10 million apples per year, production speed matters. If separating apples by ripeness and/or species is important to that process, then AI-enabled sorting equipment might be of use.

Software like Adobe Lightroom assesses & automatically “corrects” a photo’s color, contrast, color saturation, etc. Pro photographers who hit the “auto” button probably don’t accept the automated settings as their final choice, but the button still saves time.

Artificial intelligence & your business

Ask yourself this: “Does artificial intelligence have a place in my business and if so, where?

If you’re the apple processor, it probably depends on the price tag.

Is there (perhaps mundane / routine) work / analysis that must be learned to become productive at your company? It’s possible a system could be trained to perform some or all of it. Like the time savings associated with automation, it might eventually free your team’s time to focus on work that you’d never cede to AI. It’s still early, but it’s worth investigating for the right kind of processes. The scary thing is the number of unknowns when you get started, but you’ll get past them like you have with other new things.

This can help improve customer support, but don’t confuse that with customer service. Empathetic, knowledgeable people belong there, not AI.

Are you using comfortable tools?

Almost all work teams use tools. Sometimes these tools change over time, sometimes they don’t. Some tools have a long history and rarely change from their original form – other than perhaps the materials they’re made of. The pocket knife is a good example. While it was once wood, bone or stone, over centuries it evolved to steel and other metals. Today, you can buy a pocket knife in almost any form you want. If you have the right tools, you could make the knife yourself.

Comfortable tools, comfortable shoes

We can get so comfortable with a favorite tool that we don’t consider the use of alternatives. In some cases, we might be blind to alternatives or improvements. Either we don’t realize that everyone who generally does what we do has moved on to new, better, safer, or more productive tools, or we aren’t paying much attention to changes in our industry.

Tools become like comfortable shoes or a car that we’ve owned for a long time. They fit just right. They don’t give us blisters (real or mental). We become so adept at using them to perform our work that they become a part of us. We can use them to perform a task and find ourselves done with the task and realize that we performed the task without really thinking about it. At that point, work becomes much like muscle memory. We can do it inattentively or without focused thought.

While this sort of comfort and familiarity is a good thing, we need to be careful not to let ourselves be lulled into complacency.

Are your tools state of the art, or close?

When we don’t get outside of our comfort zone on tools – and this could be tools of any kind – things can happen to our work and our output that we never saw coming. If you still use a claw hammer for every nail you drive, the houses you build will be as sturdy as those built by someone with a modern tool like the pneumatic nail gun. The problem you might run into is your level of productivity would be the close to what it was 40 years ago. That might seem ok until your ability to complete a structure in a particular time frame is compared to builders who use nail guns.

The nail gun is an example and these issues aren’t limited to any single trade, skill, or career. Even if you love your industry’s equivalent of the claw hammer, it’s worth taking time to review the alternatives that have sprouted in the last year. Some industries experience tool changes quite frequently. In particular, software changes in many industries, but there are many other changes that occur frequently that you may not want to (or need to) switch to. Even so, stay aware of them.

Flavor of the month

Tools in some industries change so frequently that keeping up with them can put a serious dent in productivity. Thrashing around because you’re constantly changing to the “flavor of the month” tool-wise adds hidden burdens to your productivity and costs to the bottom line. This is one of those areas where you see software changes creating problems. This isn’t as much about the software industry as it is about the industry where the tools are used. The software business has plenty of challenges with flavor of the month technologies – but they aren’t alone.

If you feel like you are repeatedly tempted by the “bright, shiny object” tool-wise, stop to reflect a bit on what’s creating the desire to switch to another tool. Is it desire or need? Marketing tools frequently fall into this category, while proven, productive activities such as the manual labor of following up after a sales call are neglected.

Tool changes are often positioned as eliminating the need for a skilled craftsman (regardless of gender), or eliminating the need for a tool user with substantial training and experience. Safety is often a prime component in the introduction of newer tools. None of these things replace training, skill, and experience with a tool. Even with 3-D printing and similar technologies, there’s skill, experience and training at some point in the process.

Build a process with your team that evaluates new tools and gets people to stretch their comfort zone beyond the tools they’re familiar with. This tempers “random” tool changes & allows both experienced & novice staff to offer input & learn the business process for evaluating tools.

Photo by moonrat42

Raise productivity by lowering cognitive load

Are you trying to figure out how to help your team become more productive? Traditional efforts to raise productivity will help, but are they enough? At some point, you’ll find that the law of diminishing returns will take over. Rather than give up, you & your team need to reassess the team’s workload and how it’s handled.

It’s important! It’s mandatory.

Traditional attempts at workload assessment usually include a re-prioritization of tasks. Regular priority assessment is a good thing, but not often a great thing. Sometimes it resembles “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”. What takes a re-prioritization from good to great is leaving your team open to not assigning a priority to EVERYTHING – i.e.: giving permission to not do a task. It’s OK to identify work as “work we don’t need to do”, or “work we don’t want to do”. However, your team still has to do this work because “It’s important!” and/or “It’s mandatory”.

There’s “mandatory because the law requires it”, but there’s a second form of mandatory that’s rarely talked about: “mandatory because I said so”. Some tasks legitimately fit this criteria, but many shouldn’t. The quote “Mandatory is one of the crutches we use when we can’t lead people.” speaks to these tasks. I’ll bet we’ve all seen this type of mandatory task in the workplace.

Mandatory doesn’t mean a person has to do it

Mandatory workloads tend to be administrative and clerical work placed on non-admin / non-clerical team members. Sometimes, it even includes administrative and/or clerical work placed on admin / clerical folks. Some of this work is necessary and important, like timekeeping for employees whose time is billed out to a customer. The rest should be subject to re-prioritization.

Your team has to stop doing unimportant work so that they can focus on what IS important. I’m sure you’ve heard and thought that before. Even so, we continue to put more “administrivia” work on our people. Sometimes this work is important, but if you look a little harder at it, you’ll find that much of it can be delegated. My favorite team member to delegate this kind of work to is “systems”.

Why do you want to either stop doing this work or delegate it to someone other than an employee? Cognitive load.

Every task you give a person increases their cognitive load. Take a high-value employee who does focused work for you. If in addition to that work, they also have five or more daily administrative / clerical tasks on their plate, those things have to be remembered.

Why does cognitive load matter?

Ever notice how you suddenly remember things at two am, or when on a walk, or while on an airplane? At two am, you’re usually sleeping. On a walk, your mind is free of all the things at your desk. On an airplane, the restrictive environment means your phone is useless and often, so is your computer. Those environments have a lower cognitive load, and suddenly, your brain remembers things again.

Extra tasks competing for brain power create “rush hour traffic” for the brain. Driving a car full of kids in heavy, urban traffic is more mentally draining than driving them on the open road. The complexity of heavy traffic and urban roads make driving more challenging. Add a bunch of kids in the car and.. well, you’re probably all over what cognitive load means. Add darkness, rain, and fog. Each layer increases the cognitive load your brain must manage in order to drive.

New administrative and/or clerical work increase the total cognitive load for employees who do focus work, decreasing the importance of their “real work”. Are these admin tasks more important than the number one task any random team member is expected to complete that week? My guess is that they aren’t.

Lowering cognitive load via systems

Work that requires deep thought is sabotaged by interruptions. We “clump” meetings together in order to reduce interruptions and increase available focus time. We clean our office to reduce clutter – and thus visual “noise” / distractions. Unnecessary tasks, office clutter and interruptions all add to cognitive load.

People under high cognitive load don’t need darkness, fog, or rain (interruptions / clerical work) added to their “drive” (workload). While these tasks can’t always be eliminated, they can often be automated. If someone is making a phone call or checking a website multiple times per day to determine if an action should be taken, is there a way to automate that determination? If you have systems tracking various aspects of your business, is someone manually tabulating that info? Is there a way to automate that tabulation? What can you eliminate or reduce? What can you automate?

Photo of Atlas by Simon Cope

A well-armed minutiae: Urgent, not important.

Yes, I said “minutiae”, not “militia”. The similarity and power of these two words struck me, so I thought I’d substitute one for the other. One of the most dangerous things in your (and your team’s) day to day productivity is the “crisis of the unimportant”. IE: tasks that seem important only because someone interrupted you with them. Minutiae are the little things that, left uncontrolled, will consume your day and leave it unfulfilling, perhaps annoying and almost certainly empty of substantive accomplishments. Stephen Covey spent his career preaching about preventing these tasks from consuming your day – categorizing them as “urgent, not important”.

Eliminate minutiae with systems

As the owner or a senior manager, it’s critical to get out of the “interrupt me early and often” mode as soon as you can – but that doesn’t mean you can ignore the needs of those who interrupt you. You simply need to find a way to deal with them and set boundaries for them. A system helps.

Back in the days of Photo One, photography studio owners asked me to solve this problem for them. To the studio shooter, the most valuable revenue-creation time was in the camera room – ie: behind the camera time with the client in a room full of props, lights and other tools of the studio photographer. When they’re in that room with a client, the value they’re creating can create revenue for years, so the last thing they want to happen once they have “warmed up” the subject is to have the rapport / groove interrupted by someone asking where the coffee filters are, or how to process a refund for a charge split across two cards, or similar.

One answer to this is a system that provides answers to “interruption questions”. A studio owner told me that they had an answer / procedures book to deal with this, but they didn’t like the maintenance headache that it caused. This book predated Google docs and wikis, so they edited everything in Microsoft Word (or similar) and then printed the answers / procedures and put them in a three-ring binder.

The process established in the studio was to consult the book if you didn’t know the answer, then ask your manager and only then could the shooter in the camera room be interrupted. That interruption was OK only if it couldn’t wait until the camera room appointment was over. Obviously, this becomes a training issue at first so that the proper habits are established. Beyond that point, the book should get updated with one-off requests quickly so that camera room interruptions fall off quickly.

Make sure your minutiae cure is scalable

The studio owner came to me because they had a big studio and one book wasn’t enough. They needed multiple copies, but managing all the changes was a chore. Since most of the users were lusing Photo One all day, it made perfect sense to include the equivalent of “the answer book” within our software. That allowed anyone to get to it, plus the answer book functionality in the software allowed them to print a copy of the book so there were always printed copies available.

Resources like this can provide answers to questions, as well as step by step checklists or processes that allow the owner and managers to get things done the way they want, even if they aren’t available. One memorable example was “How to arm the alarm at end of day”. Do this wrong and you have no security or incorrect security. Do it right and the owner / manager gets some slack and the employee builds confidence in their ability to close the shop for the day.

A wiki, a FAQ, anything

These days, a custom desktop software feature like that really isn’t necessary because it’s so easy to build something like this into the private side of your company’s website as an internal wiki or frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) page. These assets are valuable not only for managers and your subject matter experts (SME) who get interrupted by such questions, but also for new employees or temps who come into your shop and need a resource other than “Ask Jennifer” umpteen times per week.

The last time I started getting overwhelmed by these things, I started writing down the context of the interruptions. That allowed me to see trends, identify what needed to be documented and get out of interruptionville.

Work Linear vs. Parallel

This week I traveled to Kyiv, Ukraine for meetings with a software team. The meetings went well and I will be on my way home by the time you read this, however I had some travel issues.

It’s worth noting that all of the issues I encountered were either created or they were problems that are not allowed to solve themselves because the people and systems communicate with each other at a level that forces them to work in a linear fashion.

It prompts questions we should consider for ourselves and our clients.

What do I mean when I say “Work linear vs. parallel”? Some examples from my trip provide a good illustration.

Working linear

When my plane from Missoula left Salt Lake City (SLC), it left late because the de-icing line in SLC was long. I don’t know if they had a de-icing truck out for repairs, or if they simply didn’t allocate enough trucks or drivers, or if something else was going on.

Regardless of the reason, the situation and the possible lack of fallback solutions (ie: backup trucks, drivers on call, etc) created delayed flights for many that day – creating a linear problem.

If the normal pace of takeoffs cannot be maintained, then SLC becomes a bottleneck in the West and flights to surrounding cities start struggling with schedules as a result.

This cascades into many linear problems at once since every city with a late flight potentially has stranded passengers or passengers with missed connections. Old news, but it’s important to consider how quickly this can cascade.

When my plane left Missoula, it did not de-ice. I don’t know what the protocol is for de-icing, but about 15-20 minutes into the flight, we had failed to continue our climb to cruising altitude and started to turn back. The flaps would not retract and this wasted too much fuel. Unfortunately, we were above maximum landing weight, so we circled for 20-30 minutes to burn off enough fuel to land.

The irony is that this circling was burning the same fuel and time we would have burned if we had simply continued to SLC with the flaps down, normally a 54 minute flight.

This quickly ate into the layover I had built in.

When we got to SLC, we were unable to pull into our gate right away. By the time I got to the gate for Paris, the plane door was closed and I could not board.

Five minutes matters

The big thing that hit me during this process was seeing multiple instances of seemingly insignificant two to five minute delays cascading into hours of delays. Any one of them could have been planned out of the airline’s response and it would have allowed enough time for three people on the Missoula flight make the connection to Paris, much less all the other people who were missing connections that afternoon.

The thought to consider is this: How many two to five minute delays are built in to what you do, how you serve, how you deliver, etc? How do these affect the client’s outcome? What costs do they increase when service fails? What costs will the client incur?

What happens when a few of these five minute delays push your delivery of products or services to the next business day?

What systems do you have in place to automatically tend to conditions that can create these delays?

Working parallel

Every business encounters problems. How businesses react to them and what they do to eliminate / prevent situations that are controllable is critical.

How does automated, perhaps parallel problem solving save money? What delays can be addressed without waiting for them to happen? What delays can be reacted to with automation to accelerate a response and solution?

Cost examples from a plane trip:

  1. What’s the circling fuel expense to get below max landing weight vs. the cost to continue to SLC?
  2. What’s the cost of lost seat revenue for the empty seats and hotel stays for interrupted travel?
  3. How much delay is introduced at the gate when you don’t automatically rebook travelers?
  4. On a daily basis, what does a five minute gate wait cost, in missed connections, lost seat revenue and hotels?

Look at your business. Make a list of preventable delays. Knock off one at a time.

Habit forming: What do you do every day?

Trails

Habits – at least the good ones – tend to help us get big things done that we might otherwise never accomplish.

One of the things I do every day is read a page from “The Daily Drucker“.

The Daily Drucker is a 366 page book of one-page-per-day excerpts from Peter Drucker’s books on business, management, entrepreneurism and leadership – all 36 or so of them.

First Things First

Why should you do something like this?

What do you do now?

Having a routine, a ritual or habit (call it what you will) seems like a good way to start the day. Not only does it go well with coffee, but more importantly, it acts as a transition action that signals your mind that it’s time to switch to “work mode” from “whatever you’ve been doing that morning” mode.

This may not seem like a big deal, but think about your current morning routine a little. You get the kids off to school and/or care for your pets, livestock, clean snow and ice off the car and maybe you run into someone on the way to work who is just now learning to drive. You know what I mean…

The point is, while all of these things are going on, you’re really not in a prime mental state for being productive. Your staff isn’t either, if they’re going through this every day. It might take 30 minutes for your mind to settle down and get focused after all that – even if your office is at home.

Over the years, I’ve learned that even a brief minute or two to read and process what Drucker has for me that day (along with some java) are enough to reboot and refocus after the morning’s activities – no matter how hectic, stressful, annoying, cold, wet or pleasant they might have been. A distinct mindset shift point became useful at first and later became a regular part of my day.

You don’t have to use the same technique, but if you check into the habits of highly-accomplished people, you will find that most of them have rituals, habits and the like that they perform on a daily basis.

Many go through their ritual/habit process early in the morning before anyone “wants a piece of them”. Ever notice that no one wants an appointment with you, or a phone call with you at 5am? While this may not be the easiest time of day for you – it’s more than likely going to be a time when no one but you will ask something of you – even the kids.

These people are at least as distracted by travel, family, daily life and their business as you and I, so they use these rituals, habits and so on to keep them on track and doing the right things. It was Drucker (among others) who reminded us that “doing things right isn’t nearly as important as doing the right things”.

Helping your staff with this can produce massive leverage. If 5, 10 or 30 people start their day in a better, more focused mindset – would that help your business?

Beyond the morning

Daily habits go well beyond the morning routine. What else are you doing every day?

Think about the most important work you have to get done each week. Certainly, the “real work” you do – building things, delivering product, installing systems or parts and providing service – are the things that generate value for your customers, but (for example) the marketing of that work product is what allows that work to find a home.

Has your marketing and sales effort established an important enough part of your day that *something* from this part of the business is done every single day?

What other parts of your business merit daily, habitual attention? Are they getting it? Are they truly strategic or are they “what you’ve always done”?

Improvement

Be sure that your work habits include personal development. It doesn’t matter if you’re a butcher, baker or candlestick maker, much less an electrical engineer, diesel mechanic or whatever – your business is changing all the time. Keeping up is essential just to stay in the game. Make “getting ahead” a habit as well.

That’s a little bit of the trick to reading Drucker. Not only is it a transition maker, it refines the strategic and management thought process each day.

The most expensive, most stressful thing on your desk

Nothing destroys a work day like distractions.

Ever realize that it’s “suddenly” dinner time and all you remember doing since lunch is reading Facebook?

That’ll show up nicely on a deposit slip. Hello, stress.

Distractions are a product of your work environment, your work habits and how those two things are communicated to others.

Your work environment

What you surround yourself with is critical to your work. Clutter doesn’t help – and I mean clutter of all kinds – physical as well as electronic.

These things are waiting to distract you, so you have to eliminate them from your work environment. Eliminate doesn’t necessarily mean trash.

Electronic clutter is particularly distracting to me, so I’ve surrounded myself with systems that “protect” me from it. Instapaper helps me get rid of open browser tabs that I was saving to read. Things, a GTD-oriented system, helps me store ideas and to-do items on notes, in my head, in emails, etc.

Because I know they’re not “lost”, they don’t clutter up my browser, mind, desk or subconscious. Don’t take the last one lightly. Worrying about forgetting something is very distracting.

Random phone calls are also a form of clutter, so I only take calls by appointment (with very few exceptions). I know – you think you can’t do this without losing sales. I thought the same thing.

My tools may not fit you. Use what fits. Discard what doesn’t.

Your work habits

Last night at a local restaurant, I spoke with one of my Scouts who’s home from college for the summer. He’s in amazing physical condition and has been for years, despite being a skinny little guy years ago. He says people often say they want to “look like him”, but they don’t want to do the work he did to get that way.

He tells them it’s as easy as working out every day, which may be hard to do until it becomes a piece of your life you aren’t willing to give up for anyone – even your immediate family. That hour a day that no one (or nothing) can take from you for any reason isn’t neglect. It’s building a better you so you can be better for them.

Habits are just as critical at work.

One of my mentors would growl “Just do more of what matters. Make more time by doing less of what doesn’t.” While he’s right and yes, it’s common sense, most people need help doing it.

Consider the three most important tasks you need to finish next week. Do you have to think about it to remember them? That’s not good.

I use my calendar and Things to tell me those three tasks. Neither tool forgets. I review Things every weekend and schedule work tasks on my calendar as if they were meetings, speaking gigs or other commitments.

In an age where you can watch TV on your phone and people can contact you almost anywhere, you have to take managing yourself seriously. Scheduling things (even blog writing) in my calendar is how I make sure that the important things get done – including family stuff and paying bills.

A full calendar makes it easy to say no to less important things you don’t have time for. If the important things like work and family are booked first, stuff that doesn’t matter enough has no place to go.

How those two are communicated to others

People appreciate when you don’t immediately answer your phone, but always return their call.

People appreciate when you don’t immediately reply to an email, but always reply.

People appreciate it when you don’t miss a ball game, a play, a concert or a night out, even if you have to work afterward.

When people see you glance at and then ignore a vibrating phone while in a meeting with them, they’ll ask about it the first time. When you tell them that you aren’t answering because you booked this time solely to give them 100% of your attention, your previously “unreasonable” call policy suddenly becomes reasonable.

If you work (or play) with focused attention, people will notice and appreciate it.

You mentioned stress. What about that?

How much stress would you have if you didn’t forget important things and routinely completed them?

 

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Disclosure: I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s. Visit http://facebook.com/visasmallbiz to take a look at the reinvented Facebook Page: Well Sourced by Visa Business. The Page serves as a space where small business owners can access educational resources, read success stories from other business owners, engage with peers, and find tips to help businesses run more efficiently. Every month, the Page will introduce a new theme that will focus on a topic important to a small business owner’s success. For additional tips and advice, and information about Visa’s small business solutions, follow @VisaSmallBiz and visit http://visa.com/business.

Does packing a suitcase make you more productive?

Think about the process you go through when preparing for an important business trip.

You make a todo list so you’re sure you get all the bases covered.

You think of every scenario that might come up at home while you are gone and every scenario that might up come while out of town.

Based on all the conditions and situations you can think of, you pack/prep/research accordingly and give instructions to the pet/house sitter.

Do it every day

Do you also use that same process to prepare for the next week of work? For the next trade show? For the next sales meeting? For your next customer appointment? For your next deployment?

Even though this kind of preparation works well for a big business trip, it’s unusual to find businesses doing it on a day by day basis. If you plan your work weekly, you may not need to do it each day – but that depends on the nature of the work you do, as well as the work you delegate.

Harvey Mackay says “dig your well before you’re thirsty” – which most of us tend to do before going out of town. So why would we do so little of this when we’re in the environment that we’ve (presumably) optimized to produce our best work? Yes, I mean your office, shop or whatever place you work in on a regular basis.

The earlier, the better

Recently my wife (who teaches junior high kids) and I were talking about our area’s proposed use of tablets in school. Personal electronics use in schools is all over the place policy-wise, depending on the school system. Unfortunately, discussions about electronics in school tend to focus on what can go wrong, perhaps due to the political pressures schools face.

Because junior high kids are at a highly impressionable age, it’s the perfect time to teach productive, socially-acceptable use of mobile devices. It’s also an ideal time to teach critically important work habits that help improve productivity, focus, accountability and follow up skills they’ll need to succeed in high school. If mastered before leaving junior high, they’ll help students meet goals they haven’t even discovered in high school and beyond. While it isn’t too late to learn these habits in high school, the earlier they’re learned and used, the faster they’ll benefit the student.

The value of “The earlier the better” works the same way for your company.

Do you also encourage your staff to do the “before packing a suitcase” kind of prep? When improving your own work processes, include your staff early. The habits you pass along will help your business in the short run and grow your staff in the long run. Finally, don’t forget to ask them about their best work habits – you might learn about the best one yet.

If you aren’t doing this, it can put your staff and your customers at some level of risk. Maybe not the risk of failure, but certainly you risk achieving “average industry performance”.

What’s wrong with average industry performance?

How does this sound: “We deliver average products and services in an average time frame at average prices.” That just screams “you gotta buy from us”, doesn’t it?

This is one reason the term “best practices” sets off alarm bells for me. Industry organizations publish their members’ “best practices”, but really – these practices tend to be the common practices of the average industry member. Why? The organization assembled the list of tactics and strategies from its membership, or in best case, from those considered to be leading that industry. Few recognize the practices that the highest performing organizations have adopted as their advantage until they become widespread – ie: average.

Below average organizations who are trying to improve work to adopt today’s best practices of their industry. Industry leaders have already created (or discovered) what will be tomorrow’s best practices, which will soon be the norm. That is, when everyone else figures out what the new norm is. By then, the industry leader has raised their game.

Everyday habits like your “before packing a suitcase” ritual are what set industry leaders apart.

PS: Here’s the story of the concrete suitcases in the photo.