At the end of each day, reflect on the moments where you lashed out or got short with someone. Then, pinpoint the circumstances surrounding the experience. Were you working on a specific task? Were you working with a specific person? Were you unrealistic about time or availability?
Evaluate these self-reflections and develop themes around your “stress triggers.”
Add these stress triggers to your “don’t do list” (the opposite of your to-do list) or to your goal setting documentation.
A key element of the self-leadership process is self-reflection. Our tendency is to ignore these unpleasant experiences. Instead, give them attention and do your best to prevent them from becoming a bigger issue.
How many times have you heard someone say, “let’s set a deadline for this?”
Deadlines are useful. They ensure that everyone involved knows the drop-dead date when the deliverable must be ready to ship. All involved can then plan and sequence tasks to ensure they hit the deadline.
The problem, however, is when the people we work with are unrealistic about their ability to hit deadlines. One of my biggest pet peeves is staying up late or rearranging my calendar to deliver, only to receive a last-minute email from someone stating that they need an extension.
Just because others “work better with a deadline” doesn’t mean you need to accommodate. Instead of sacrificing your own priorities, sometimes it’s better to make others deliver first before you take action.
Email is a ubiquitous workplace communication medium. And the inbox never stops filling up. To maximize productivity, it’s important to have the right mindset when you check your email.
The goal is not to read or reply to emails, the goal is to “triage your inbox.” Here’s the process (and it goes in this order):
(1) Delete emails you don’t need.
(2) Move FYI emails to appropriate folders.
(3) Answer any emails that only need a one-sentence response.
(4) Tag emails that need more than a one-sentence response to be addressed during deep-thinking time.
Too many of us go straight to #4 when we check our email, but we don’t have the time or space to craft an appropriate response. Instead, triage your inbox and make time for the important emails during designated time frames.
Imagine that you and your team have been trying to figure out a problem over several months. You’ve had meetings, conducted research, and interviewed outsiders. The next steps, however, are still unclear. What should you do?
Our tendencies in these situations is to take action - any action, even though we aren’t sure if it’s the right thing to do.
Sometimes the situation dictates that we must act. But many times decisions stem from our need for closure. Being the hyper-productive beings that we are, we want to cross things off the list or close the loop.
Relatedly, it’s time to get comfortable with “sunk cost.” Don’t make things worse by taking unnecessary action. Plus, time spent on one task takes away from time spent on another. Spending time figuring out that something should simply continue to be monitored and reevaluated in the future, in some cases, is the best decision.
Research illustrates that doing two things at once lowers our applied IQ to both tasks. This means that multi-tasking literally makes us dumber.
We’ve all been there - we’re on a zoom call, we’re not a key presenter of information, and our role is to passively listen because something might apply to us. But you’re busy. Can you check your email? Can you clean up your notes from the last meeting?
I would argue that yes, you can. Why not be honest with everyone? Perhaps be transparent and let everyone know that you have a few urgent items you’ll be simultaneously addressing while listening in. That way everyone knows to ping you and bring you into the conversation more directly when appropriate.
I would also argue that, in some circumstances, meeting organizers should let non-active participants decide for themselves whether they have the time to “sit in” on the call.
The working world has not yet figured out the true potential of asynchronous communication. The meeting organizer should record the video and take note of relevant points for individuals not in attendance.
If there was something pertinent that a non-attending colleague should know about, then they should send them the recording, and direct their attention to the conversation point of interest.
Time is precious. We should respect each others’ time and we should be transparent about how much time we have available.
The goal of appointment scheduling software - Acuity, Calendy, HubSpot, etc. - is a noble one. No more back-and-forth emails trying to pin down a meeting time.
I love it when people let me see their availability and pick the day and time that works best for me. But I rarely use this software for my own meeting invitations.
If time is money, then pinning down a meeting time is a negotiation. If someone lets me pick my ideal time, I win, because I get to pick the time that perfectly aligns with my productivity cadence.
I have a few standing meetings that appear every week or two. My goal is to only schedule ad-hoc meetings that are immediately before or after those regularly scheduled meetings. In effect, what I’m creating is a window of time where I’m in “talking mode” over the course of several meetings.
Having random meetings across the day is distracting, it leads to energy depletion, and it makes it harder to get into a state of flow. I take this to the extreme and try and create talking days for teaching and meetings, and non-talking days for deep thinking tasks like writing and analyzing data.
Scheduling software is amazing, but to my knowledge, none of them are smart enough to accommodate the level of customization necessary to ensure that my days are scheduled the way I want them to be scheduled.
I’m fine with a few back-and-forth emails. The cost of those few minutes pails in comparison to the cost of distractions.
The advice, “be authentic,” is widespread. In particular, there is a wide body of research illustrating the benefits of authentic leadership.
Many, however, have dismissed the idea of authenticity, saying that it’s unrealistic. One argument is that it’s unwise to only be what you want to be. It might not align with what your superiors or customers expect.
Another argument is that it’s unwise to speak your mind at all times. You’d get the unfortunate reputation of being antagonistic.
These critiques are missing the point. Being authentic doesn’t mean you have a license to skip being empathetic and do as you please. It’s a mindset that guides how you influence others.
Authenticity means first being in tune with who you are and what you believe (self-awareness). Then, you are forthcoming about your beliefs and why you believe them (relational transparency). The key is open-mindedness, ensuring that the other party knows that you are genuinely interested in learning more and exploring alternative rationales (balanced processing).
Authenticity shouldn’t lead to people being selfish. It should lead to people having transparent conversations where everyone respects each other’s perspectives.
There are four primary states of consciousness. Understanding their differences is a key step in maximizing productivity.
Mind wandering is when our attention jumps from topic to topic. This is our default. Although sometimes we have an “ah-ha” moment while mind wandering, it’s not inherently productive.
Ruminating and fantasizing entail a narrow focus on the past or the future, respectively. Not only are these states unproductive, but they can also perpetuate stress. Replaying your mistakes or thinking through unlikely worst-case scenarios is unhelpful.
The first productive state, mindfulness, entails present moment attention and being fully in tune with what is going on within your own mind as well as being aware of what is going on around you.
The second productive state, flow, also entails present moment attention. It’s akin to being “in the zone,” where time flies by, and our abilities are in perfect alignment with the demands of the task.
Given that mind wandering and ruminating/fantasizing are unproductive, the goal should be to continually come back to one of the present moment states - mindfulness or flow. But which is better?
If there is a specific task at hand that needs to be accomplished, especially a deep thinking task, getting into flow is the ideal. But in all other scenarios, being mindful is the way to go.
Many say social media is a time-waster. For me, it’s an important and enjoyable part of my job - connecting with practitioners, getting a handle on the latest trends, and finding new partnerships.
I agree that social media can be a time-suck, but only if you’re using it at the wrong time. Social media is a form of quick engagement. It doesn’t take long to read 140 characters and then like or share.
Social media is problematic when we use it during time frames that are supposed to be for deep thinking activities. Taking a social media break in the middle of putting together a detailed report, figuring out a coding mistake, or writing a novel, is not a good idea.
Breaks are only beneficial when they are as different from the original task behavior as possible. Continuing to look at a screen doesn’t have the same recovery effect.
So when should we look at social media? When we only have 2 or 3 minutes.
Waiting on someone to join a zoom? Go for it. Going to the bathroom? Why not. Walking up a flight of stairs? Perfect.
We spend a great deal of time in transitions from one activity to another. Although they might only be a few minutes, over the course of a day they add up to a significant amount of time. Try making this your social media screen time. Reserve the deep thinking time for deep thinking tasks.
Extremely challenging situations reveal our weaknesses and challenge our capacity to keep it together. On its surface, this doesn’t sound like fun.
But when the dust settles, we commonly self-reflect and realize that we’ve matured or learned something new.
Taking it a step further, dealing with the impossible makes us more marketable. For example, when screening potential new hires or deciding who to promote, organizations are drawn to the individuals with a story to tell - the ones who can breakdown how they grappled with uncertainty and change.
Ironically, there are also beneficial performance implications of diving into the impossible. The bar for performance is low because no one actually expects you to succeed. Even if you simply survive, not thrive, it’s considered a win.
Arguably, given these benefits, we should be running towards the potentially insurmountable obstacles. But why don’t we?
Our default is to strive for security. We want the sure thing.
Interestingly, if you stay somewhere long enough, a big challenge will eventually hit, and likely when you least expect it. Instead, then, perhaps it’s better to pick the challenge yourself and dive in with eyes wide open.
A little over one hundred years ago, a New England mill instituted the five-day workweek to accommodate Jewish and Christian day of rest observances.
One hundred years later, this five days on, 2 days off cadence still exists but is somewhat blurred. Thanks to the Internet, then mobile devices, and now the COVID-induced momentum towards virtual work, employees are more likely to sprinkle their work across all their waking hours (I.e., not just “9 to 5”)and across the seven days of the week.
Would it be so bad to work every day? I typically put in somewhere between 2 to 4 hours on Saturday and Sunday. Why not? I have relatively little, if any, emails, calls, or meetings on those days, so I’m very productive.
Additionally, because I work few hours during the traditional five-day workweek, I get more time to knock out non-work tasks, take breaks, and most importantly, spend time with family.
I find it somewhat odd that organizations are going the other direction and experimenting with a four-day workweek. This just means even more hours crammed into fewer days. Most of the time it doesn’t work because the marketplace demands quick responses.
I know that not everyone has the luxury of choosing when they work. But I can’t help be curious why more people don’t try working fewer hours each day, but six or seven days a week. For me at least, I don’t “work for the weekend.” I get my work done when I can so that I can live my life every day.
Social loafers are the worst. They don’t contribute but they are more than willing to put their name on the final deliverable.
To date, the best advice out there on reducing loafing is to increase individual accountability. This typically takes the form of peer performance ratings. That rarely works. We’re afraid to rate honestly for fear of potential retaliation. Perhaps something more drastic is in order.
What if team placement was determined by individual performance? In academia, I’ve heard rumors of professors putting student teams together by GPA. Fairness issues aside, it seems to work pretty well. Here’s what happens…
The teams with type-A superstars stop complaining about social loafers. They are overjoyed to be on a team full of overachievers.
The teams with lazy social loafers are forced to do something because if they don’t, they won’t have anything to deliver.
The teams with moderate performers tend to go-with-the-flow, enjoy the experience, and put together something that is pretty good, but not amazing.
Problem solved? Probably not. Teams are typically put together based on functional needs. But perhaps there’s a way to tease out social loafing on the front end - through team placement. If you want to work with the best, you’ve got to earn it.
My favorite time management framework is a two-by-two with urgency and importance as the two dimensions.
Tasks that are non-urgent and not important should be removed from your task list. Be honest with yourself. Time is finite.
You should think twice before doing anything urgent but not important. We waste a great deal of time doing things that feel good because they are easy and we can cross them off our list. Just because you crossed it off your list doesn’t make it productive.
Tasks that are urgent and important inevitably deserve your immediate attention. These are the unforeseen fires that need to be put out as soon as possible. It happens. That’s life.
Tasks that are non-urgent and important is where you need to increase your time spend. If the tasks are important they deserve your attention now, before it’s too late. This is where setting aside time for deep thinking is much needed.
Freeing up time to focus on the non-urgent and important also has the potential to *prevent* the urgent and important. It’s a double-win.
Don’t just create a task list. Cultivate your task list through the urgent-important framework.
Almost every time I go to my local, big-box grocery store, the cashier and the bagger are complaining about their work. The coworker who was late. The supervisor who said no to a request.
It makes me uncomfortable. And it degrades my perception of their organization’s brand.
But wait, I do it too. I’m embarrassed to think back on how many occasions I’ve complained about something work-related to a friendly colleague.
In the moment it feels right. It’s a form of emotional coping, and it can also build stronger bonds with coworkers.
But perhaps these short-term benefits should be weighed against their long-term detriments.
For one, it signals that you’re willing to talk behind people’s backs. Second, it reinforces close-mindedness.
Sometimes people just make mistakes. So will we. Sometimes people just have a different perspective. And that’s okay too.
Are you second-guessing your off-the-cuff use of a curse word to make your point?
On the one hand, research suggests that swearing signals a lack of professionalism. On the other hand, research suggests that swearing signals authenticity or passion for a topic.
As usual, the context should dictate. The more informal the culture and the more you know the crowd, the more likely your swearing won’t offend.
Curse words, by definition, have some degree of stigma as being taboo. So when you do use them, they have the potential to wake people up. They carry an emotional impact.
However, if you really need to use a curse word to have an impact, the problem is probably the content of your message, not the delivery.
When ethical blunders happen, we love to point our fingers at the villain. Pinpointing a protagonist gives us closure. It helps us make sense of why the bad thing happened - because someone was unethical.
Indeed, there are many cases where someone knowingly broke the law or intentionally took advantage of the system. But the truth is, more often than not, the ethical mishap is more nuanced and caused by an interaction of the person’s behaviors (or lack thereof) and the situation they are in.
The competitive and regulatory stance of an industry, the culture and structure of an organization, and the interpersonal dynamics of superiors and peers, also play a vital role in unethical outcomes.
Individuals should always be accountable for their actions. But if we stop there and fail to reevaluate the system in which they are embedded, the system will continue to produce unethical outcomes regardless of the characteristics of the people involved.
How often do you have text message conversations with friends and family during your work time? Let me guess - the dozen or so texts are spread out over 30 minutes as you toggle back-and-forth to your work tasks. This is not ideal.
We know that distractions are bad for productivity. However, you can’t ignore friends and family, right?
My colleagues, clients, and students respect my worst-case scenario, 24-hour turnaround time. This is unlikely to fly with friends and family. It’s personal, therefore, it’s rude to not respond quickly.
But what about a compromise? What if we promised to do all of our non-work responses during a specific window of the after-work evening hours? Would that be so bad?
This aligns with the common productivity philosophy of “chunking versus sprinkling.” The more we can chunk together common tasks, the better we’ll be at staying focused on the task at hand.
The downside is that not everyone will be available when we’re ready for our scheduled chunk of communication. Perhaps that deserves a coordination message where you give each other a window of availability.
The upside is that we’ll actually be engaged in the conversation - not multi-tasking with work concerns in the background. Additionally, if we stay focused on getting work done during work hours, we’ll free up more time to engage in more non-work interactions.
It’s late, you’re tired, and your inbox is still overflowing with unread messages. This is the moment where you decide whether it’s better to power through or power down.
On the one hand, you could power through in order to stay on top of things. There is value in that approach because maintaining control limits stress. Further, for better or worse, business rewards productivity.
On the other hand, you could power down to maintain sanity. There is value here in that rest and recovery are critical for maintaining one’s well-being. Further, it prevents burnout, which is connected to major episodes of productivity derailment.
So what should you choose?
Typically, our personal characteristics drive this decision. Things like personality, motivation, and the like.
What we should be incorporating into this decision are situational elements. Can certain people wait for your response? What does your calendar look like over the next few days? How have you been doing lately on sleep, stress, and overall well-being?
When in these moments of deciding whether to power through or power down, consider the context and implications of your decision.
I once made a serious gaffe in a formal meeting with 20+ attendees. All of them older, wiser, and more experienced.
The comment was so incredibly stupid that for the next five minutes I was the source of an outrageous amount of laughter.
That was years ago, and I can still close my eyes and go back to the moment. I’m tormented by the memory of that experience. I was sweating. I couldn’t think of anything witty or self-deprecating to smooth it over.
The reality, however, is that no one in that meeting remembers what I said (I’ve asked). To them, it was just something to laugh about. Oddly enough, I made that meeting halfway entertaining - for at least those five minutes.
We’re all human. We all say stupid things sometimes.
Stop ruminating. Move on. No one really cares. We’ve got more important things to think about.
I once saw a pinned tweet that essentially said the following:
“I love my job. I love to work. I’d work 100 hours a week if I could. But I also want to take lunch with a friend at a moment’s notice. And if a family member is sick, I want to take an entire month off and never check my email.”
While this example is relatively extreme, I think it nicely summarizes a paradox of working in the 21st century. Our willingness to work extremely hard is tied to how much flexibility we have.
For many, it’s more likely that we work somewhat hard and we have some degree of flexibility. Organizations aren’t just going to give employees extreme flexibility. That’s too expensive.
But if employees, in mass, staring demanding it - and offering extreme levels of commitment in return - it might just happen.
Ethics are important in the workplace. So important that you should error on the side of caution.
Just because you don’t have evidence that someone did something immoral, doesn’t mean you should ignore your gut when something doesn’t feel right.
Does it seem like they are leaving out details?
Does it seem like they are withholding their sources?
Does it seem like they are reluctant to share information?
These are important signals. Trust your instincts. Call them out or walk away. If you don’t, you'll be sorry down the down.
You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule, right? 80% of the value is created by 20% of your employees.
What if I told you that research suggests that it’s more like 5%, not 20%? Yes, 5 out of 100 people are clearly your “star performers,” producing far more value than the remaining 95%.
What are the implications for human capital strategy?
We should be spending more time finding our stars and cultivating those relationships. What would ensure that they stay at your organization, continuing to add value for years to come?
We should also stop encouraging stars to take on positions that aren’t a fit for them. The classic example is promoting the top sales performer into a sales manager position. Salespeople sell. Managing might not be their thing.
We consider all sorts of psychographics when managing human capital - personality, values, strengths, and the like. If we ignore what are arguably the more important factors - employee needs, drives, and preferences - we’re missing the boat.
"Can You Take The Lead On This?”
If you are my boss and you ask respectfully, then yes, I’m happy to do the work that you are assigning me.
But if you are my peer, this question is problematic.
What this typically means is “I don’t want to do the work on this, so it’d be awesome If you’d do the work instead.”
A better framing would be to ask, “what part of this project would you like to lead?”
The assumption that one of you will lead and the other will follow is also flawed. That’s not how teams succeed.
The best teams are those that repeatedly grant and claim team leadership roles as the situation dictates.
I know that sometimes it might feel “leader-like” to ask someone to take the lead on something. It’s not. That’s something a manager says.
I’ve worked on several projects in my career where the other party dropped the ball. It drives me nuts.
Typically it’s because they either changed their mind and re-prioritized or they took on more than they could manage.
Maybe it is what it is. Sometimes things just don’t come together.
However, you do have some degree of control and can limit the likelihood that it will happen in your relationships.
To prevent ball dropping, spend more time upfront talking about expectations. Make it clear that you don’t want to start the project unless X, Y, or Z is the final outcome. Then put it in writing - an informal email summarizing the initiative will suffice.
Still didn’t prevent the other party from going missing in action? Never, ever, work with them again.
There are too many people out there doing great things to get stuck on one relationship. If you don’t have that luxury, perhaps because they have been assigned to your team, do your best to not co-own responsibilities.
Ball dropping might be an unavoidable part of work. But it doesn’t mean you can’t proactively manage the probabilities that it will happen to you.
When it comes to leadership, we are inundated with contradicting suggestions on "what" to do.
We should have executive presence, but we should also be a humble leader. We should be proactive, but we should also have a clear goal in mind before taking action.
So which is it?
The more accurate (and more helpful) answer is that it depends on the situation. This is the "when."
Don't oversimplify. Add context. Challenge yourself to think through the when, not just the what.
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