Life / Can Do

Helpful tips to living a better life

Posts Tagged ‘productivity

Clear Your Clutter And Take Back Your Space

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Having a cluttered home is a constant drain on energy, focus and can drag you down. A home should be a place where you can move about freely and the things you need are in easy reach and the things you cherish are there for you to enjoy. Finding the shoes you want for a special occasion should not be a grueling adventure.

To live our lives we need a proper space in which to work and play. Everyone has a junk drawer where we toss those items we are not sure we’ll need again but for some their homes are their junk drawers. The key to maintaining a proper space is to not bring in unnecessary items  in the first place. When you do need to bring in more items it is important to let go of old items. Buying a new pair of pants means you should toss or give away and old pair.

Maintaining an uncluttered space is counter to our consumerist society. We are constantly told that we need things to be happy. If we follow the advice of advertisement we find ourselves more unhappy than before, but then they tell us to purchase their totally cool new organizational system – more stuff.

Toss, Give Away or Keep

It is important that we question the need for everything we currently have and then make a decision – toss (preferred), give away or keep (boo!). That TV in the basement collecting dust could be used by a college student who is working his way through school. A family who is going through tough times could use those old clothes you will never wear again. Just imagine some kid somewhere wearing that old coat as he goes to school in the morning.

Give it away if you don’t plan on needing it the near future. If you find you do end up needing it you can visit a thrift shop and get another one when you do.

When in doubt, throw it out. If you are not sure someone could use it, throw it out. Some may argue that we should reuse everything we can to save the planet, but for some that kind of thinking keeps them in a prison of their own clutter. We’ve kept things for years on the slight chance someone could use it but unless it is something practical like clothes or a useful appliance, we are fooling ourselves that someone needy will suffer without that fondue set (Seriously, who gives someone a fondue set for Christmas?!).

Don’t Be a Collector

One of the most despicable phrases in the ad world is the term “Collector’s Edition”. There’s the presumption that if we keep this item long enough it will be worth a lot of money some day. Do yourself a favor and don’t get caught up in the collection disease. Nobody is going to spend big bucks for your old copy of the “Die Hard The Ultimate Collection”. On Ebay I saw the original VHS version of Rocky (1984) sealed for $21. Someone kept that treasure in their basement for over 20 years and all they can expect is $21. They didn’t even get to watch it.

Of course some things are more collectible than others. Vinyl LPs do have a market but even then we are not talking big money unless you have something extremely rare. If you do want to keep a collection make sure you have the space and that you get enjoyment from it. If you have a den where you like to display your old comic books then that has personal meaning for you and brings you pleasure. Still, I’d rather collect experiences than items.

Be a Disciplined Consumer

Buy only what you need or enjoy. Don’t make spontaneous purchases. You should make a list of things you need before you go shopping. If you see something else you like make a note of it for possible future purchase. I like to think of stores as my personal storage units where the things get better the longer I leave them there.

There was a widescreen TV in Best Buy I had my eye on a few years ago. I decided I didn’t need it right away so I would leave it at the store until I did. Years went by and the technology has advanced to make that item obsolete. Now there’s a new 3D-HD 65 inch display that I’m currently not purchasing until I need it. The truth is that my current TV is fine and I can continue using it until it stops working. Sure, I’d love the newer features but it’s not worth my money, time and space.

Your space is more valuable to you than any item you bring into it. Any thing you buy or keep has to prove its worth before it can take up any of your space.

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Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

February 12, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Posted in Life, People, Productivity

Tagged with , ,

Responsibility

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The group I work with had a bad quarter financially and it was my fault. We had lost an important client and failed to bring in enough new business to cover that loss. I am not a director or a manager and it is not in my job description to make the decisions that would directly affect the bottom line, but I still accept a share of the responsibility for the loss. It would be easy to believe that the results were out of my control or to blame it on the current economic conditions. I could even argue that my projects were extremely successful and the work that I did reduced costs while increasing business value. However, the truth is that I am part of a team and when that team does not do well, I do not do well.

As individuals, we have to own our part in the success or failure of the teams we work with. I am proud that the work I did may have helped mitigate the negative numbers but I regret that I could not have done more to help others achieve the results we needed.

I asked my manager about what we did or did not do to cause us to lose that client. He didn’t know. How could he not know? How could something that was so significant not be communicated clearly and to everyone?

So I am taking responsibility for something executives at the company did not care to share with me. There was no lack of communication when we were all told that bonuses and raises were going to be reduced due to this unknown failing of ours.

I will not accept this lack of communication. I will not grumble, complain and blame the higher-ups for the lack of fairness. I will keep asking until I get an answer. When I do get that answer, I will ask another question: “What could I have done differently that would have helped prevent the loss of the client?”.

I believe we were not told because the executives believed it was their own fault and not that of the employees. I believe it is shame and not malice that makes them reluctant to share the information. They have a responsibility to make the right decisions but they should not take all the blame any more than they should take all the credit for the results we produce.

I decide how much I will contribute to the success of the business. I decide if I’m going to do just what is assigned to me and I decide if I’m going to go beyond what is expected. If I am treated unfairly and my pay does not reflect my contribution, it is my decision to accept it or to look elsewhere for work. The only thing my employer really has control over is whether or not to keep me on the payroll during a layoff. I do whatever I can to make keeping me on the right choice.

I blame not just myself but everyone in my group. I blame those who do only what they are told and don’t ask questions. I blame the employee who follows a process just because it has always been done that way. I blame the project manager who is only concerned with meeting his project’s deadlines. I blame the person who leaves early because their work is done while their peers are overwhelmed with work. I also forgive them because I have done the same in the past.

There is no doubt in my mind that we will come back from this setback. It isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last. A successful business is not one set of quarterly results or the loss of one client. A successful business is the cumulative success of the individuals working in it.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

January 25, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Productivity Is For Everyone

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clock

The concept of productivity is often associated with the workplace. It is not often discussed in the context of family or social life. I believe it is important to be productive in any aspect of life. Even when the goal is to just sit home and relax with the family it is important to maintain efficiency in your home life to maximize the opportunity to spend that time.

When viewing the popular topics in WordPress, I have yet to see productivity listed there. It is interesting to see “Fashion” as a popular topic but not “Productivity”. Not everyone has an interest in fashion but I would expect everyone has an interest in productivity. Who wouldn’t strive to achieve more in less time?

It doesn’t matter what you other interests are, be it bowling or bingo. We all want to spend more time doing those things that bring us pleasure. In a factory productivity is measured by how much product is produced using the least amount of resources. At home we want to produce as many quality moments with our family and friends at the lowest cost. Playing a game of Jenga with the family is much more productive than mere cohabitation.

Today I spent an hour outside in the snow with my wife and child. We laughed and knocked each other about. My wife aimed a snowball at my back but I turned and got it square in the face. It was worth it to see the two of them laughing. That was just one hour but it was extremely productive. My daughter got to see her parents letting loose and having fun. You can’t pay for that kind of child therapy.

So when you making you lists of things to do, make sure you put in those tasks that matter most.

At work, I don’t get paid by the hour. My boss could care less if I work 30 or 80 hours a week as long as I produce results. I do my best to stay as productive as possible so that I can have time for all the things that matter to me. I schedule time with family just like I would an important meeting at work. The agenda may not have been written down but I had a rough list in my head. If I had written it down I suppose it would have been the following:

Event: Snow Time With Family

Agenda

  • Knock Emma down in the snow.
  • Snow angels
  • Sled down the hill
  • Snowball fight
  • Drink hot chocolate while reviewing highlights

I didn’t set an official start and end time because it all depended on how everyone was feeling. If we were still having a great time it would have run longer but it started to get dark and the cold started to be exhausting. Plus we had that hot chocolate to look forward to.

I wonder if businesses could learn something by this and maybe schedule meetings based on the level of employee engagement (or lack of). It is almost taboo to consider how people are feeling when making business plans. Employee morale is almost always discussed after the fact and only after consultants have been brought in to advise about low numbers on our employee surveys.

With the recent snowfall and my daughter’s level of excitement, my wife and I planned our day to allow for this time. Each of us had tasks that we need to get done early so we kept the TV off and got those done. If we didn’t plan I’m afraid the day would have come and gone with the opportunity lost.

I’m suggesting that if you want to improve your family or social life you need to plan tasks that can help you achieve that. If you are single and want to have a better social life, you need to make an effort to set up outings with friends or join a book club or go dancing. If you have children you could schedule activities such as model building or art projects. Start yearly traditions like Superbowl parties or game nights. In our case, we have a traditional Chicken Soup get together where we eat bowls of my wife’s chicken soup (it’s really good soup).

Ask yourself if your family or social life is producing the results you want. If you have any troublesome friends it may be time to downsize. If your family is not getting along you need to spend time and resources on improving those relationships. Your life is a factory with the purpose of producing happiness for you and your loved ones. It is important that it run efficiently and effectively to best achieve that purpose.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

January 21, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Dealing With Pressure : A Real Life Case Study

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pressure

Currently I’m under a lot of pressure to complete a project by a certain date. I have 2 weeks to do about 4 weeks of computer programming. How I got into this situation is another story but for now we’ll focus on techniques I’m using to handle it.

Stop taking on new work

The first step I took was to communicate to the rest of the team that I needed to focus all my attention on the current project. I made it clear that I would be unavailable to take on any new tasks until it is complete. That alone decreased my potential workload by about 30%. I let everyone know when I expected to be done and available.

Breakdown the work into manageable tasks

I then did an analysis of the work that needed to be done and broke it down into manageable tasks. This is something I would do under normal circumstances but it would be especially important when time is limited. I then estimated how long it would take to do each task in hours to get an idea of how many hours I would actually need. I compared that with how many hours I could reasonably work in the remaining days to see if it was even feasible.

Prioritize the tasks and determine the exit criteria

With the list of tasks in hand I then assigned a priority to each. I used a 1 to 4 prioritization but A,B,C,D could work just as well. In addition I labelled those tasks that absolutely must be done as “Exit Criteria”. Anything that was not labelled as an exit criteria would be done only if time allowed. You’d be surprised at how much work we take on that doesn’t really need to get done so determining the exit criteria is a way to separate the “must have”s from the “nice to have”s.

Trim as needed

Trimming work is an important part of any project. I looked at what needed to get done and looked for ways to reduce the amount of work needed to complete each task. I’d look at a task and try to see if there were a quicker way to accomplish what was needed than what I have originally intended. Often, I would find a task that needed 8 hours could be reduced to 2 or less by taking a different approach. I may even find ways to use work that I had done before rather than starting from scratch.

Delegate everything you can

There were a number of analysis tasks that I would have normally have taken on myself but with the time crunch I just let someone else on the team handle it. This may involve given another employee a chance to take on more responsibility than usual, which is a great way to contribute to their growth. I had a business analyst do tasks such as tracking down some crucial details that I needed for the project, meeting with users, updating documentation, hosting technical meetings. That was stretching his abilities a bit but he’s handling it better than I had hoped.

The business analyst said something I found quite wise and amusing related to working with people from another group.  He said, “Tim, let me talk to them. They should be more willing to help me because they will know I am in over my head.” Here a case where someone used their own limitations to our team’s advantage. It really is an awesome feeling when you work with good people.

Know your limitations

You would think being in a time crunch would mean working non-stop until the project got done. Actually it doesn’t work that way. There have been studies that has shown team that work excessive amounts of overtime take longer than teams that work a reasonable amount of hours. This may not apply to tedious, mindless work but it does for anything that requires focus, creativity and intelligence. When time is limited it is important to be focused when working.

Yesterday I had planned on putting in a long day, but after working for 9 hours I could tell my productivity was starting to slip so I stopped. It takes a lot of energy to think so once you start to get tired even relatively simple tasks can take much longer to do.

Even during those 9 hours I had to take little breaks. I would stop every hour to stretch, breathe and clear my head. At lunch time, I ran on my treadmill for 30 minutes before having a light lunch (big lunches are productivity killers).

Focus on one thing at a time

With all I have to do, it is tempting to try to do multiple things at once. I resist that temptation because, it is next to impossible to multitask. The brain is just not built that way. When people talk about the ability to multitask what they are really talking about it the ability to switch between tasks quickly, otherwise known as context switching. While building this skill is important it is important to recognize that context switching comes with a cost.

Try reading a newspaper article and when you get to the middle stop and switch to another article. When you get to the middle of the second article switch back to reading the first. You will notice that you need some time before you get your bearings on the first article, you may even have to re-read a sentence or two before you can continue. The time spent doing that is one cost of context switching but it is only one cost. As you continue reading the first article, you may notice your mind thinking about the content of the second. Lost focus is the other cost.

It is important to focus on one task as long as you can or until you finish that task. That is also why it is important to break work down into manageable tasks that can be completed in one sitting or less. You leave a task half done and it may stick in your mind until you get a chance to get back to it.

Keep your head clear

If you have anything on you mind, unrelated to the task, that is bugging you, you should schedule a time to address that issue later. If you start thinking about a birthday party that you need to plan, while working on an urgent task, stop for a moment and jot down an entry in the scheduler of your choice to work on that later. Once scheduled you know longer have to worry about forgetting it. It may not be completely off your mind but it won’t be as intrusive.

I have a few unrelated tasks that I need to work on later. They are important to me so I picked a day and time on my calendar and scheduled a meeting with someone else who is involved. Now I can put it out of my mind and just focus on what I need to get done for the urgent project. Even as I write this I had to think back to what it actually was because it is no longer something I’m worried about. I know I have a time set with a reminder that will let know when I have to focus on it. It is so far out of my mind I honestly don’t remember what date I picked. I just know it is going to be handled in the future.

Assess your progress

This morning when I got back to work I took a few minutes to assess the work I had completed the night before. I was pleasantly surprised to find I had done the same amount of work in one day that it would have usually taken me three days to complete, maybe more. With at least a 3 to 1 ratio I am confident I will complete the project on time.

If I was so productive, why not work that way all the time. I wish it were that easy. The problem with maintaining that level of productivity is that it isn’t sustainable, at least not by me and not at this point in my life. I had to block out my schedule and reduce time spent on other commitments. Life has a bit of flexibility when dealing with extreme situations but if you don’t let it bounce back, stuff can start to break.

Remember what’s important

If you work with good people and have a supportive family they will understand that when you need to commit to something for a period of time. However, if you do that too often or for too long you risk damage to relationships. Coworkers will start to resent your lack of teamwork and family will feel neglected.

The goal should be to complete the urgent project as soon as you can so that you can get back to meeting all your commitments. Even when working on the urgent project you still need to find some time for family and friends.

Today my daughter stopped me in the kitchen and wanted to sing a song that she learned at daycare. I had been going to my computer to finish something, but instead, I pushed that aside and put all my focus on hearing my little girl sing. The song was simply all the months in the year done to a tune ending in a few lines of verse. I was delighted that she could now recite all the months. It the grand scheme of things, I’ll remember Emma singing this song much longer than the project I’m working on. It is just more important to me than one work project out of the hundreds I’ll probably do in my career.

If I hadn’t taken the time with my daughter I would have had a nagging feeling in my heart when I got back to work. That feeling would have weighed me down and hurt my focus. Even if I were to still finish the project on time, how good would I feel knowing what it cost me. I’m not saying that I am always there for my family – I still need to make a living – but I will be there if they need me.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

January 21, 2012 at 9:31 am

Busy, Busy, Busy

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One of the downsides to increasing your productivity is that you tend to take on more work. You become one of those “Go To” people who can be counted on to get things done. There is an urge to take it all on and show others you have what it takes. Resist that urge and only take on the amount of work you can reasonable manage.

Just recently I’ve managed to get a number of projects off the ground at the same time. These were sitting in limbo over the holidays due to lack of funding and available people. Now they have all been given the green light and are under way. The problem is that I’m involved in all of them so now I find my time stretched thin. I hadn’t planned on having them all going at the same time, but I’m now a victim of my own success.

In past years, what I would do is push a few ideas forward knowing that it would be unlikely all of them would pan out. There is so much stalling and red tape in a big corporation, so you need to get things promoted early and keep pushing until they get the right amount of approvals. I’ve since had some projects that went extremely well, so now when I propose a solution it moves forward.

It’s a given that I have more work than I can reasonably handle. The only solution is to delegate and hand off what I can to others – something I have been historically uncomfortable doing. You know the old saying, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself”. I don’t believe that but I do believe if you want something to go according to your vision, you have to do it yourself.

Once you hand off work to someone else, their vision of what it should be starts to alter the end result. That is as it should be and woe to the person who tries to force his exact vision on other people. Others may follow the basic idea but they are bound to put their own take on it. If you don’t allow for others to add their own ideas, you will end up with a disengaged worker bee, not a collaborative creator.

So I have to accept that I need to share the vision of the project with others and work with them to produce excellent results. Still, there is something in me that mourns the loss of control.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

January 17, 2012 at 7:46 pm

Aspects of a Successful Life

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How to improve the quality of your life?

We all desire a happier and more rewarding life. In that we often strive to improve specific details of our lives – get a better job, own a bigger home, spend more time with our friends and family, get in better shape, and so on. While it is important to work on these focused goals, it is important to take a step back and look at our lives as a whole and determine if our individual goals contribute to our long-term happiness. It is easy to assume that a goal such as striving to get a better paying job is something we want, but we may find that we are just following a pre-programmed path set by the expectations and influence of others or even the media. It would be a tragedy to struggle for years to achieve a goal only to find that is detracts from you happiness instead of contributing to it.

Big goals and small tasks

Once you take a step back and consider what you want to achieve in life, the complexity of the problem can be daunting. When faced with a large goal the best thing to do is attempt to break it down into smaller more manageable goals. You may need to establish another levels of goals below these as well if they are still too daunting. Once you have a list of goals, you will need to determine that actionable tasks you need to achieve those goals. Even then if there are tasks that appear too big to tackle, you can break those tasks down into smaller sub-tasks. There is no limitation on how small the tasks should be. They need to be small enough so that you feel that you can easily accomplish them. This is just a high level overview on the process of goal setting and tasks. We will expand upon the topic of goal setting in a future article.

Mind, Body and Spirit

The first step that I take when editing my life goals, is to consider the three main aspects of my being that I want to improve which are mind, body and spirit. While the more pragmatic may feel that this is little too “new-agey”, I want to assure you that I will strive for practical advice based on both quantitative and qualitative research as well as my own personal experience. The word “spirit” has religious connotations, but in this context this word encompasses the topics of passion, drive, motivation and purpose. The concepts of mind, body and spirit are very useful when setting goals. In practice, however,  most goals will address more than one of those. Though exercise is often considered a way to improve the body, it also improves the mind and spirit as well.

Maintain skepticism

Most of the advice I will provide on this site will be based on work done by others. For years, I have researched the fields of self-improvement, productivity, business and anything else that would help provide the answers I had been looking for. I will continue to research in my endless mission to improve my life and the lives of others. In those years my life has had many challenges and I attempted to apply what I’ve learned to those challenges. I’ve achieved great things as a result. I’ve also found that some of what I’ve learned was faulty or incomplete. I don’t begrudge those who shared that faulty information as I believe most offer the best that they know and it was up to me to find my own answers.

I will do my best to share what I’ve learned but it is important that you remain skeptical to my advice or the advice of anyone else. You have to find what works best for you, but to do that you need to consider what others have to share. If you figure out a better way of doing things, I ask that you share that with others.

Nobody has all the answers. We often see experts publish a book one year only to produce an expanded edition some time later. Were they holding out on us? I don’t think so. The publish a new edition because they’ve gained more knowledge, more insights and have had more time to apply their ideas in the real world. I’m sure they also get feedback from others about how their advice didn’t work as they expected and that they needed to make changes to meet their personal circumstances.

It’s up to you

Not only do I not have all the answers, I still have many more questions of my own to figure out. Still, I am absolutely certain that if you try some of the ideas I will share with you, you will learn ways to improve your life. When you do experience success, it won’t be because of anything I’ve shared, but rather due to your own efforts to apply what you’ve learned.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

January 8, 2012 at 11:23 am

What is the Worse That Can Happen?

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You may have all your ducks in a row. You have a great plan for that big project. You dotted the “i”s and crossed the “t”s and triple checked all your assumptions. Despite all your efforts things can still go wrong. If you didn’t plan for the unexpected this can cause frustration and anxiety which can only make matters worse.

It is important to have a plan for all those things that can go wrong and even for those things that can’t possibly go wrong. The very fact that you have a plan B (or C or D) will help keep anxiety under control.

Risk management should be an integral part of your planning process. This can apply to life events as well as business projects. If you are planning a wedding you may consider an alternate if you can’t get the caterer you were hoping for. If you a launching a new product to the market you need to consider what to do if a competitor at a trade show displays a similar product with more features.

A few months ago the company I work at had an issue with one of our systems. It was the middle of the night so we scheduled a conference call. After roll call we assessed the situation and everyone started brainstorming solutions. I interrupted the conversation and told the group that our team had a plan for this situation.

“Before we spend too much time on this, I have to let you know that we already have a plan in place in the event this occurred.” I said.

“You have a plan? But how could you know this would happen?” Someone asked.

“We didn’t know but we planned for it anyway.” I answered. “I’m sending you all the document which will outline the steps to route the files to an alternate service and around the component with the issue.”

There was a few questions most of which were already answered in the document. In the end it took us 30 minutes to resolve an issue that would have taken hours otherwise. Anyone in the IT field will know that every system has a contingency plan but usually they involve time consuming restores from backup and some manual re-entry of data.

In this situation we had a plan for each component failure to avoid the brute force approach. It may seem like a lot of extra work but actually it was done during the development and testing of the systems. We would play the “what if…?” game during the project.

“What if component A stops working?”

“We can route to the old system which use the same code at that step in the workflow.”

“Yeah? Let’s write up the instructions for doing that and include that scenario in our testing.”

It is much easier to come up with plan before a situation arises when minds are calm and you have all your notes handy. Trying to formulate a plan during the middle of a crisis situation is like trying to fix a flat tire while the car is moving – it is very complicated and dangerous and there is a risk that the situation can get a whole lot worse.

There are two kinds of people in this world. People that drive into a parking spot and people that back in. I’ll leave it up to you to consider why backing into a parking spot is the preferred approach.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

January 4, 2012 at 6:29 pm