Tag Archives: getting things done

Strategic Planning and To-Do Lists… with EASE

Thompson Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. Image Credit: (c) 2008, Nicole Radziwill.

Thompson Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. Image Credit: (c) 2008, Nicole Radziwill.

In his September post to the Influential Voices, ASQ CEO Bill Troy discusses principles for effective strategic planning, gleaned from his years of experience with the U.S. Army. He also asks what principles we’ve found useful. Today, I’d like to share a little heuristic that Ron DuPlain and I came up with over lunch several years ago. It’s useful not only for strategic planning, but also for creating your daily or weekly to-do list, or even things like making a good grocery list.

EASE stands for Expectations, Actionability, Sustainability, and Evaluation. Here are some excerpts on EASE from a book I wrote for college students. (Note that several of the examples have to do with setting goals as a student… but these can be easily applied to any work situation.)

When you face a challenging problem, examine your scenario through the lens of EASE. Usually, you’ll find that you have a “failure” in only one or two of the EASE letters, and when you remedy that issue, all of a sudden your problem becomes easier to solve. Make sure all four elements are addressed when tackling a challenge that involves people (including you!) and obligations (such as meeting due dates, completing exams, and satisfying learning objectives).

E: Expectations. Did you ever ask your parents to borrow their car so you could go out with your friends? Chances are, unless you have the kind of parents I wished I’d had growing up, they set some expectations with you up front. When are you going to be home? Is anyone else going to be riding in the car with you? Are you going to pay for your own gas? Expectations like these help two people establish a shared situation that won’t get either of them mad or upset. You will need to set expectations with your stakeholders (in college, that primarily means your professors) and yourself about what you would want to get out of a particular class. Make sure everyone knows what the expectations are!! Check out the learning objectives that are outlined in the syllabus, and decide how you want to achieve them. (This means you need to set clear, specific, and reasonable goals.) Expectation setting ALWAYS beats surprises.

A: Actionability. Once you set your own clear goals, you need to figure out what actions to take to achieve those goals, and the actions must be actionable. I know this sounds funny, but I have seen way too many to-do lists where the doer has no hope to actually get the stuff done. Example: I had an item on my to-do list this morning that said “Tax Woman.” (What? I’m supposed to do the tax woman? OMG.) That task is not actionable, but if I’d said “Look up tax woman’s address, write and send payment” then… all of a sudden… I can get that job done. Making tasks actionable means figuring out how you are going to be an active and informed participant in achieving your goals. Figure out what you NEED for items on your to-do list to actually get done. All too often, you will have some tasks on your to-do list that you have no clue how to begin, and those items are not actionable. If you do not have all the resources, help, confidence, information, time, and skills to knock a task off your list, that task is not actionable. Don’t even try to start a task that’s not actionable, because you’ll end up sad or confused. You could potentially even start a downward spiral or fuel a pre-existing spiral with vigor and reckless abandon, if you dare to spend time on a task that’s not actionable.

S: Sustainability. Figure out how you are going to sustain the effort and the semblance of mind throughout the duration of your efforts… so that you can actually make your goal happen. Before the semester begins, figure out how you’re going to balance work life and school life so that you’re not maxing out your waking hours on the stressful pursuit of progress. (For example: if you are working at three jobs a total of 45 hours a week and taking 21 semester hours, this is not sustainable. However, you probably won’t know that until 70% of the way through the term when you catch pneumonia due to exhaustion, lose two of your three jobs, and miss so many classes and so much homework that you have to withdraw from one class and take an incomplete on another. What? You say that’s a completely unbelievable story? Answer: you’re wrong. This was my personal story the second semester of my sophomore year.)

E: Evaluation. Figure out how you’re going to measure whether you are on track or off track – and what you’re going to do as a corrective action if you find out you’re off track. Similarly, identify up front how often you are going to take a critical look at your progress. For coursework, you might want to check and see whether you’re allowing enough time to do your assignments. You may want to take a look at the grades and feedback you’re getting. Most of the time, just gauging how you feel about a situation or a problem is the most useful way to evaluate whether you’re progressing. If you feel nervous, anxious, or unsettled, chances are you’re not responding and reacting to that situation in a positive way. If you feel calm, peaceful, in control, paced, and you are enjoying yourself, chances are you are visualizing your desired goals constructively, detaching from outcomes (especially grades), and appreciating the journey towards your goals.

When you examine a strategy using EASE, oftentimes, you’ll find that you have a major failure on one or two of the four points. Simply by addressing those points, you will strengthen your ability to realize your strategy. Here are four types of “EASE failures”:

  • Expectation Gap – One or more stakeholders in your situation has no expectations or ill-defined expectations, or different players have conflicting expectations which sets up an expectation gap. The solution here is to set expectations through conversations and by recording points you agree on, or alternatively, to close expectation gaps through conversation and consensus.
  • Limited or No Actionability – You’ve got stuff to do and tasks defined, but you don’t have the time, resources, skills or clarity required to do them. Fix this by making sure you have everything you need to get started on each to-do list item, and you can launch into them with confidence.
  • Inability to Sustain – You’ve bit off more than you can chew or are working at a pace that will exhaust your time, resources, emotions, or well-being. Scope down and set more reasonable expectations. Figure out how to work at a comfortable pace where you can make more regular, steady progress.
  • Lack of Assessment or Evaluation – You’ve set expectations and have actionable tasks, but you aren’t revisiting the expectations to make sure that they remain relevant, or perhaps you’re just not doing it frequently enough. Also check your emotional barometer.

By examining your intended strategy or activity through the lens of EASE, you can identify and remove potential blocks before they become problematic. Good luck!

Inspiration is the Fuel, Mindfulness is the Tool

(Image credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

I always thought mindfulness was some sort of Zen-like state of nirvana and bliss. (Great for improving the quality of my life in general, but maybe a little too fluffy and spiritual to have any practical value at work.) But, like a lot of others, I tried really hard to develop mindfulness and become more mindful. Even if it wouldn’t help me get more done at work, I was still on board to get that blissful feeling. So I read lots of books! I tried to meditate. I found out I am really, really bad at meditating because I get distracted far too easily. But then I kind of found a way to back-in to a mindful state by just getting happy about stuff. But still, no real useful value for work. Until yesterday, when I realized what mindfulness really is! And this revealed to me just how useful mindfulness can be at the office.

Mindfulness is being able to focus on whatever you want to, or need to, at your command. 

(For example… having problems getting that report done for your boss? If you had trained yourself – practiced your mindfulness – you might not be procrastinating so much. You’d just be able to hop into your mindful state at will, and start being productive without a struggle, or a wandering mind.)

Mindfulness also means being able to shut out any distractions that keep you from your focus – eliminate them from your reality, so that they are just not there. Mindfulness means that you’ve developed the ability to propel yourself into flow, which is your groove of optimal productivity.

If inspiration is the fuel that catalyzes productivity, mindfulness is the tool that will help you pick up those items on your to-do list and start making progress on them without resistance.

So practicing mindfulness… you know, all that breathing and paying attention to the flow of your thoughts… they are just exercises to help you develop your “focus easily and on command” muscles. 

An Unorthodox Tip for Improving Productivity and Eliminating Writer’s Block: Listen to the Earworm

(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

The other day I read a news article or blog post (or something; I can’t remember) that explained one reason we get irritating songs stuck in our heads. The post was based on a research paper by Williamson et al. (2011) in the journal Psychology of Music. Usually, when we catch one of these “earworms” because we’ve heard a snippet of a catchy and familiar song, we’ll walk away or turn off the song in the beginning or the middle of it.

The tune, however, like a rapid flesh-eating organism invading our very soul, continues without compunction. Because we stopped the song in the middle, our unconscious becomes fixed on the task of finishing it. And so it continues, on and on, all day!

The solution, we’re told, is to listen to the annoying song until it’s over… our unconscious, at that point, will be content that the tune is complete and will be happy to move on to other topics.

I didn’t think too much of this piece of trivia until I was reading an interview with Erik Larson, author of the fantastic 2003 novel The Devil in the White City. His book provides an amazing account of the technology development and social context that went into organizing the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago – it’s a totally satisfying read. When asked about his discipline for writing, and for avoiding writer’s block, he described a method that might actually leverage the same hold on the unconscious that earworms grab:

And I try to write a couple of pages. I’m not firm. I don’t have a specific goal. But the one thing I always adhere to is that I stop while I’m ahead. If I’m going to take that break for breakfast, I may stop in the middle of the sentence or the middle of the paragraph. Something I know how to finish. Because as any writer knows, it’s — that’s what kills you is when you just don’t know what to do when you come back. And all the demons accumulate. And then you go out for a cappuccino, that kind of thing.

If you want to avoid writer’s block, leave your unconscious a hook – an easy way back in to your writing productivity!

If you want to avoid ramp-up time (or context switching time) to get your head back into a problem – which has been estimated, for software development at least, to be on average a full 15 minutes for every interruption – leave your unconscious an easy way back in to productivity! A half written module or subroutine… or a half written sentence on your notepad!

These are just hypotheses, but they’re definitely testable. I’m going to try testing this out in my own life immediately.

Your Password as a Mantra to Improve Quality Consciousness

How many times a day do you type in your password? Is it a good password? Is it a password that’s helping you focus the attention of your unconscious on the stuff you want to attract into your business or your life?

A password is essentially a mantra – a “word or sound repeated to aid concentration” – according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Typically, it’s just a word or string of characters repeated so that we can access the computing resources we need. People often pick passwords or pass phrases that are already memorable – your dog’s name, your kid’s birthday, a secret inside joke – but since the password is already technically a mantra, I think it can be much better used to create something memorable for your future, or to take advantage of an upcoming opportunity! And if you’re required to change your password so frequently at work (like me, every 90 days) this technique helps you remember your password more easily too.

ISO 9000 p. 3.1.5 (formerly ISO 8402:1994) defines quality as “the totality of characteristics of an entity that bear upon its ability to satisfy stated and implied needs.” In industry, we usually think of a product or a process as the entity, and then we work on improving the product’s quality or improving the effectiveness or efficiency of the process. So why don’t we turn it inside out and think of ourselves as the entity?

That’s exactly what I wanted to accomplish by proposing the notion of quality consciousness, which asks the question: “What are the totality of characteristics of YOU that bear upon your ability to satisfy the stated and implied needs of yourself, your communities, and the organizations where you contribute your talent?”

The three aspects of quality consciousness are AWARENESS of what quality means in a particular context, ALIGNMENT of you and your talents with the problem to be solved and the environment in which the problem and its solution are embedded, and the ability to focus your ATTENTION on the problem or situation that needs to be improved.

ATTENTION is a tricky one, though. Not only do you have to tame the distractions that are gnawing at your conscious mind, but your unconscious mind can grab your attention as well. There are plenty of techniques out there for getting your conscious mind to focus, such as David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) methodology. But there aren’t that many techniques that help you focus the attention of your unconscious mind, which is why password-as-mantra is such a useful approach.

Choosing a password-as-mantra can help you focus your unconscious mind on the things you want to achieve in the near term. Why? Because after a while, you don’t even think about entering your password… it’s just part of you… and that’s when your unconscious is actively working with it.

(I’ve been using my password as a mantra for a few years with great results. Other people have apparently figured this out too and are doing it.  I brought the idea up in one of Jeannette Maw’s GVU discussion groups, and it turns out lots of other people are doing it – we just haven’t been talking about it!)

How I Achieved Mindfulness (Without Meditation)

(The image at left, created by artist Alice Popkorn, is licensed under Creative Commons.)

Thanks to a tweet from Valdis Krebs (@valdiskrebs) yesterday, I was directed to an article entitled “Mindfulness Meditation Training Changes Brain Structure in Eight Weeks.” The bottom line is that people who participated in a mindfulness program – where they meditated and did other “mindfulness exercises” for at least 27 minutes a day in an effort to reduce stress – overwhelmingly achieved that goal. At the end of eight weeks, using MRIs, the researchers observed:

increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.

Wow! So that means all I have to do is learn how to meditate, practice it daily, and all of a sudden not only will my anxiety and stress fade away, but I’ll be smarter, more self-aware, and more compassionate.

There’s only one problem here. I really suck at meditation. I’m easily distracted, and furthermore, I’m a “quality expert” which means I can’t NOT try to be more efficient, effective, productive, etc – avoiding waste is my nature!! Even if I had the skills to do it properly, meditation has always felt, to me, like wasting time. (Darn it.) I even spent weeks and weeks last summer trying to become more mindful. Didn’t work. I finally stopped beating myself up for not focusing hard enough on being mindful and letting it slip away.

I’m sure there are a lot of people like me. You’d like to become more mindful, more self-aware, more able-to-enjoy-the-moment… but it’s hard to do. And meditation is just not helping. And so you keep anxiously moving from moment to moment, trying to be here now, but there’s way too much to think about and get done and it’s never going to end.

One day this past December, I was driving on the interstate in the middle of the afternoon. The road was laying itself out in front of me, the trees were swaying in the light wind and the low solar angle, and I was checking out the dents in the Nissan driving in front of me. And then it dawned on me… Wow, I am TOTALLY here in this moment RIGHT NOW! This must be what mindfulness is all about! I was experiencing all of the tiny details of the moment, perfectly content where I was in my seat, and where I was along the path from there-to-home, and it really didn’t matter what I was doing or not doing. Or what I had or didn’t have. Or what would happen tomorrow or not. Or what would happen an hour from now… or not. Or who thought what thoughts of me… or not.

It just didn’t matter… none of it. I was just pleasantly entangled in the moment, and totally content. (And this is not like me… I knew something had changed.)

I spent the next few days wondering how in the world this instant mindfulness happened. All of a sudden, it was all over the place. I remember mindfully eating chicken wings. Mindfully cutting my nails. Mindfully packing my bookbag to go to work. It was all around me, and there’s nothing I did to make it happen, or so I thought.

A few weeks later I figured it all out. Mindfulness is not something you can GO GET, it’s something that comes to you. All of the focused meditation and breathing I could have done would not have made me more mindful, at least not beyond the ephemeral moments of its immediate impact. And it comes to you when you consciously choose to do things that make you happy.

I had made a decision a few weeks prior to do something that would make me happy at least once a day, and to stop doing things that did not make me happy. If I really had to do something I didn’t like, I consciously found a way to do something happy as a component of doing the thing I wasn’t interested in. If I just didn’t have the energy to do something happy, I’d go take a nap (assuming that my attitude was a result of being tired – and usually, it was). I stopped trying to force the outcomes on my to-do list and get things done, and decided that I would attack only those items that I could really be happy about doing. Furthermore, I decided that I was going to stop lying to myself and others. If I wasn’t enjoying an activity, I would find a way to stop doing it – and if I was enjoying something, I would find a way to do more of it.

This is all a work in progress. But I can say that after a few weeks of my “focus on doing stuff to make me happy” exercise, I got mindfulness for free, and so far, it’s staying with me. No meditation. No breathing, other than what I had to do to stay alive. No past, no future. No worries.

Too Much to Do, Not Enough Time

(This is a repost of an article I originally wrote on July 7, 2008 at espressomind.com and edited again in January and June 2011. I was thinking about it again yesterday, when I recognized that if you’re having a hard time getting things done on your to-do list, that might be a sign that your activities don’t authentically line up with what you value. If there’s alignment, it’s usually easier to get things done.)

I have enough time for everything that I need to do! Sound like an unachievable nirvana? It’s not. Through relentless soul-searching (trying to figure out why I didn’t have any time to exercise over a three-year period) I discovered that if you don’t have enough time to do something, then one of the following is probably true:

  • You haven’t prioritized the activity high enough.
  • You are imputing higher importance to activities that are really less important.
  • You’re trying to complete too many activities in too short a time.
  • You expect more of yourself, in general, than you are reasonably able to accomplish.
  • You just don’t value the activity you’re avoiding, or its results.

Sometimes, you may be struggling with more than one of these challenges. When I tried to figure out why I had no time to exercise, I was faced with all five.

First, if something is important to you, it will become a priority. When I was complaining that I never had enough time to exercise, what I was really doing was prioritizing exercise right out of my daily routine. Other things were just more important to me, whether I wanted to admit it or not: putting in face time at the office, doing more and more tasks from my office to-do list, spending time with family, reading books, surfing the Internet, and writing research papers (yes, I really like that!)

My second challenge was that I placed too much importance on face time at the office. For my job, I can accomplish almost as much from home (sitting on my computer) as I can do when I’m physically located in the office. My old morning schedule was to wake up at 7, get online for 45 minutes to check email and handle a few of the day’s tasks, get into work by 9, crunch on the to-do list until 5, then spend a couple of hours at night finishing up the tasks I couldn’t complete before leaving. And then I would feel guilty when I didn’t get absolutely everything off the to-do list for the day, even when I had accomplished what others might consider exemplary. I finally asked myself: what’s more important, showing up on site or getting things done? I had to acknowledge that the latter was indeed more important, and accept that taking a walk in the middle of the day (especially if I thought about important problems along the way, or brought a colleague to have a needed discussion) was OK!

My third challenge was taking on too much. Before I reorganized myself, my daily to-do list had between 10 and 12 items on it. Now it only has the 3 or 4 most important tasks that would have been on the longer list. I typically get all of the tasks done during the day, and as a result I feel less guilty when I get home. There is more time for playing trains with my son, or watching a movie, or doing laundry. (Is laundry really important to me? I found out that on most days, it’s not. On the days that I’m running out of clean clothes, it becomes much more important.)

I still expect more of myself that I’m reasonably able to accomplish, but I’m not sure this is a problem – it stimulates me to learn new things every day and to keep pursuing new challenges. I just have to remind myself that I’m running a marathon, and resist the urge to evaluate whether I’m making progress on a day to day basis. Sometimes, you just have take a step back, and let progress take shape over a slightly longer period of time.

So how did I solve my exercise challenge? I set my expectations for myself a little lower, I stopped feeling guilty about less face time at the office (meaning I chose to impute less importance to it), and I made sure that my daily agenda included taking a 2 or 3 mile walk a couple times a week. On those days, that walk ranks #1 or #2 on my short to-do list, alongside the report writing or meetings I might otherwise be obligated to do.

I’m doing less, I’m getting more done, I’m feeling less guilty, and I’ve lost 10 lbs. already as a bonus. I think it’s a good deal, and I’m willing to make the process of self-evaluation that got me here important so me so I can reap some more benefits.

Getting Your “Work Mojo” Back

(This is being reprinted from one of my October 2008 posts due to overwhelming and unexpected positive response!)

Productivity is totally dependent upon whether or not you actually want to be doing something. Psychologists and management scholars call this intrinsic motivation, but when it pertains to the workplace, I call it my “work mojo”. For the past couple months, I’ve been trying to figure out “how to get my work mojo back”. In the meantime, I haven’t actually stopped to think of what I mean by that.

Here’s what Merriam Webster has to say about “mojo”:

Main Entry:
Inflected Form(s):
plural mojoes or mojos
probably of African origin; akin to Fulani moco'o medicine man
: a magic spell, hex, or charm ; broadly : magical power <works his mojo on the tennis court>

What I WANT is to feel invigorated by what I’m doing, feel completely capable dealing with all of the stuff on my to do list, and to feel like it means something to others – that’s what I think would get my work mojo back. So the Merriam-Webster definition fits pretty well – How can I get my magical power back at work? Ron said he feels the same way about his productivity on personal projects, and would really like to get his “personal project mojo” back as well. We brainstormed about it over lunch and identified four elements for the Mojo Maintenance Toolkit which can shape your own personal quality system:

  1. boundaries (in both space and time)
  2. vacation (in both space and time)
  3. objective affirmation
  4. subjective affirmation

First, let’s talk about boundaries. It’s called a “day job” for a reason – if you are chipping away at your office to-do list during evenings, weekends, and when you wake up in the middle of the night, you are not setting good boundaries for yourself. If you’re multitasking when you’re on a family outing, or checking your email on your Blackberry while you’re stopped at a traffic light, you are not setting good boundaries. I’m particularly guilty on this count, and have taken some concrete steps to set better boundaries: a) my work email does not forward to my Blackberry, only my personal email (so if a few key people really need me, they can get to me) and b) I don’t do “work work” on my home computer any more. If I leave my work computer at work, that’s it – I can see it again the next day, and the work will have to wait. (There’s quite a bit of separation anxiety that comes when you try to do this. Don’t be too hard on yourself.)

Vacation is the second ingredient required to keep your mojo alive. To appreciate something, you need to be away from it. Totally, completely, mentally and physically away. I appreciate my job much more after I’ve been away from it for a while. I appreciate my coworkers much more when I haven’t seen them in a while. I appreciate the weekends the most after a long, productive week. I appreciate my kid more when I’ve picked him up after a long day at school (and I have the sense he appreciates me more as a result too). Reflection is a natural part of growth and learning, and you need to give yourself time to gain perspective – to let all of your thoughts and ideas percolate into well-rounded solutions.

Objective affirmation is the next ingredient. You need to measure your progress, and be able to reflect on it, to get a sense of accomplishment. There have been times when I’ve sat in my office, (figuratively) crying into my coffee, beating myself up because I feel like I didn’t get enough done. But when I take a look at the status reports from myself and my team over the past few weeks, or progress reports that cover a longer amount of time, it’s pretty clear that we get a lot of stuff done – it’s just not obvious unless we can see our world today is different than our world was a few weeks, months of years ago.

Subjective affirmation is the final (and most insidious) of the keys to cultivating your mojo. In addition to being able to see and feel that you’re moving forward and getting things done, if you don’t have the feeling that the people around you appreciate your contributions, your level of inspiration is bound to wane. (Occasionally, the rewards from doing the task itself might be enough to negate the need for subjective affirmation – but this is not commonplace.) Do people really care about what you’re doing? Do they value the contributions you make? Or do they think you’re an idiot who can’t get anything right? Do they just not like the job you were hired to do (ie. it makes their job harder)? A solid, healthy team will provide a lot of subjective affirmation; a fractious organization will not. Additionally, the subjective affirmation really has to come from people who have no vested interest in your success or failure. Subjective affirmation from my most trusted colleagues and my boss is nice, but I know they’re on my side (I’m lucky to have a fantastic boss). But what about everybody else?

The concept of subjective affirmation extends beyond the workplace as well, though. Ever feel like doing the laundry is a thankless job? It might be, because you get no subjective affirmation as a result of doing it. You can objectively measure your progress every time you put the folded shirts in the drawer, but if no one seems to care, it’s unlikely that the thrill of the job itself will continue to motivate you.

Morale is a consequence of all four of these “mojo factors” aligning among the individuals in a team or organization. To get your own morale up, see if you can find ways to achieve each of the four.