Tag Archives: time management

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. 

The Secret of (High Performance) Teams

I confess, I wasn’t very enthusiastic when I first picked up this new book by Mark Miller, VP of Training and Development from Chick-Fil-A. The Secret of Teams: What Great Teams Know and Do was kind of thin and reminded me of Who Moved My Cheese? – at least by touch. I’ve read tons of books about cultivating successful teams, many of which were banal and uninspiring (in addition to saying the same things as all the other “yay team” books). Does the world really need one more?

After reading Mark’s 144-page parable, I think the answer is yes. Yes, the world did need one more book about high performance teams, and it’s this one. And I’m glad he took the time to share the story with the world.

The Secret of Teams is the story of Debbie, a manager who has a track record that includes turning one particularly less-than-stellar team into a powerhouse. Her reputation precedes her as she moves into a new position, where her team (although well intentioned) just isn’t coming together like she’d envisioned. Debbie carries a slight air of defeat as she struggles to recover her sense of self-worth. She convinces her boss that it might be helpful to go interview some high-performance teams, to extract some themes that could help improve her own management approach (as well as other team leaders in similar positions in her company) – and she sets off on her journey.

As you read through Mark’s book, you find yourself reflecting on your own personal experiences to uncover the drivers for great teams. It is the easy and natural way that his prose draws out self-reflection that, I think, is the greatest strength of this quick read.

To me, I realized that there are characteristics of individuals as well as characteristics of the collective that must be in place for a high-performance team to emerge. You can have high-performance people that work well alone, but just don’t gel while working together. Each of the team’s members must want to be there. They have to have the skills and capabilities to function within the team, and make a contribution that the other members value, rather than riding the coat tails and momentum of their teammates (and in general, dragging things down). Team members have to be approachable, willing to share information and support. There has to be a feeling of camaraderie and enjoyment for a team to truly be high-performance… because then they will seek out time and opportunities to do more with the work, catalyzing the productivity of inspiration.

Miller echoes many of these findings through the characters in his story. His “Top 3” drivers turn out to be Talent (intrinsic motivation/fit), Skills (capabilities that can be developed through experience and training), and Community (an “emotional grid” where the team’s members can at once be vulnerable to one another and fully supportive of one another). In fact, the only driver I might add to his list is Inspiration, because I’ve observed it in every truly awesome team I’ve had the privilege to observe. You’re going to have to read his book to get more context – but it’s an enjoyable and worthwhile read, one that would be excellent as the basis for a team to read together and discuss how to get on a track towards collective self-improvement.

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!)

Inspiration Stimulates Productivity and Engagement

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

I saw this on Facebook earlier today:

Jeannette Maw loved this from Jason Fried’s Rework: “When you’re high on inspiration, you can get two weeks of work done in 24 hours. Inspiration is a time machine that way. Inspiration is a magical thing, a productivity multiplier, a motivator. But it won’t wait for you. Inspiration is a now thing. If it grabs you, grab it right back and put it to work.”

“Yeah, exactly!” echoed the little voice in my head. Inspiration is, hands down, the best way to increase productivity.

I know this because I have experienced it. For example, yesterday, I wasn’t inspired at all. I got about a quarter to a half of the work done that I ordinarily could expect to do in a day. The December before last, I was completely inspired and wrote a 200 page book in 10 days. When it catches you, your job is to identify what’s just happened, make use of it, and then enjoy the brilliant time warp it thrusts you into, allowing you to accomplish superhuman knowledge work in compressed amounts of time.

But inspiration is sensitive to environmental conditions. I can’t be inspired when I’m tired. I can’t be inspired when I’m distracted by other things, like reading blog posts on the web or checking for text messages or new tweets on my Droid. I can’t be inspired when I have a cold, and I just want to curl up under a comforter and read. I can’t be inspired when I’m too hot, too cold, or too irritated by a friend or coworker’s antics.

So why, I thought, aren’t we promoting inspiration more in our organizations? Why aren’t we providing programs and environments where people can tap into that natural inspiration and become ultimately productive? And then I realized – we are – sort of. But we call it engagement.

When we are engaged, we are inspired. We tap into that natural flow where we become focused, and directed, and amazingly productive. When we are not engaged, we harbor low productivity, high absenteeism, and contribute to high turnover in our organizations (see, for example, “Great Britain’s Workforce Lacks Inspiration”).

However, I’d also like to propose that engagement is a symptom – a consequence of feeling good and having a high quality consciousness!

Let’s work on the root causes, and focus less on the symptoms.  The root causes of quality consciousness – Awareness, Alignment and Attention – combined with the positive well-being that fuels them, can (and should) be used to cultivate greater engagement in our organizations.

Instant Productivity

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

I’m always more productive when I’m actively avoiding something I need to do, but don’t want to do. Yet.

That’s actually the state I’m in at this very moment. This morning, I have to put together a survey. Now, putting together an online survey is not a real thought-intensive process. You have to figure out what questions to ask… you have to drag and drop icons to make sure that your question types are represented… and then you click on the “Response 1” and “Response 2” text and type in what the real responses should be. I have a little more labor to undertake, since I have to double-click on a Dropbox folder and pull out a couple paragraphs of text that I need to include on the survey. But for some reason, I’m just resisting and resisting getting this super important task done – which is now two days late, and I’ll be extremely embarrassed if it’s three days late, because I confessed my sins of procrastination at a meeting yesterday afternoon and vowed to be faithful to my commitment on this, the third day…

And well, you know how it goes.

In the meantime, I’ve become ultra productive regarding everything else on my to-do list. I’ve prepared for two of my Monday classes. I’ve posted new resources to the online learning management system for my students. I’ve started reading a book I promised to review for a publisher. I’ve done two loads of laundry. And it’s not even 10 in the morning yet.

This is making me wonder whether I should always have an “avoider task” on my to-do list. It’s great fuel to push me to do the others.

Process Improvement to Improve Your Life

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

Sunday afternoon, as I sat at my kitchen table drinking tea and flipping through the Sunday Washington Post, I came across an article about using process improvement principles in everyday life.  Aha!  My first thought was that I need to share this article with Nicole, followed immediately by another thought – I really need to share this with the students in our HON 300/ISAT 680 process improvement class!

I’m not sure of the exact date when Nicole and I hatched the idea of a process improvement course.  Since we both arrived at JMU in the fall of 2009, we have had numerous conversations about all the cool things we would love to share with students about quality and process improvement.  Those conversations inspire me, and honestly, sometimes they leave me feeling a little overwhelmed.

Whenever it was that we hatched the idea of this course, I definitely had some concerns about the reality of fitting a process improvement project into the time limitations of a single semester.  My concerns were heightened when we decided to structure the course using the DMAIC approach.  All the Six Sigma projects I led as a Black Belt certainly took longer than the approximately 15 weeks allowed for a semester, and I was a full-time Black Belt who (supposedly) knew what I was doing!

Wouldn’t the data collection and analysis overwhelm our students?  Shouldn’t we require some background in statistics as a prerequisite for enrollment in the course?  How would the relationships work with our clients?  Would the students really be able to deliver results in one semester?

Yet here we are, in early February with four outstanding project teams that are quickly moving into the Measure phase.  What’s all that got to do with the Post article?

Process improvement doesn’t have to require mountains of data and highly sophisticated statistical analysis.  The basic principles of process improvement can be used to effect change by anyone, and in almost any situation.  That is really what our course is all about, and the Post article just provided an example we can all relate to.  Who doesn’t wish for more time in their day?

I think we have an outstanding group of students enrolled in our course.  Nicole and I want them to learn, understand, and apply process improvement principles, but not just within the confines of this specific course.  The continuous pursuit of improvement is a lifestyle, and today I was reminded of just how true that can be.

Rebecca Simmons

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