Finding your sweet spot

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Photo courtesy of Devon Christopher Adams (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Devon Christopher Adams (Creative Commons)

When I was little and my daddy taught me how to play tennis, I remember him telling me about the sweet spot on the racket – how if I was able to hit there, I would have more control over the ball, and could better direct where it went on the court.

I’m searching now to find the sweet spot in my work routine because lately it feels like I’m either swinging and missing the ball or whacking it all over the court!

The nature of my work is interruptions – retail management has that drawback. But there are some things that I do that require concentration – staff scheduling, sales reports, reviews of processing and promotions – and finding blocks of time to focus on these things can be difficult.

One way to counteract the disjointedness of my day is to get back to basics. I am starting my planning the day before – jotting down the 3-4 most critical things I need to accomplish before I leave for the day, and leaving any materials related to those projects or tasks front and center on my desk. That way, no matter what hits me as I walk in the door, I have those reminders of what I need to accomplish. That also serves to bring me back to the critical tasks when I get pulled away during the day.

The other part of the equation has been more difficult to resolve and I’m still working to find a solution. That block of uninterrupted time seems to be elusive – I’ve tried blocking time first thing in the morning, closing my door, making an appointment on my calendar, working offsite, all the things you read about in productivity books and blogs.

So far, none of those options has worked.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to jot down my list each afternoon, because at least that keeps me grounded. And I’ll keep swinging in search of that sweet spot that means productive work time!

Planning in pencil

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Photo courtesy of OFour (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of OFour (Creative Commons)

I am a planner. I like to know what I’m doing when, what the next steps are, and what the final outcome will look like.

But lately, especially at work, my priorities seem to be very fluid. I can start my day with a solid plan and by lunchtime, it’s already changed drastically, and by the end of the day, I’m not even sure what I’ve done all day!

I’ve been reading a book called, “What You Can, When You Can,” by Carla Birnberg and Roni Noone, and in it is the suggestion to plan in pencil. That really hit home for me because there is still value in setting the expectations of what to accomplish and how, but if you plan in pencil, then you can easily adjust along the way.

How freeing to know that I’ve crafted a strategy to get something accomplished, but that I can be creative enough to react as things change throughout the process.

In what ways could you be more productive by planning in pencil?

Clear space to think

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Photo courtesy of Id-Iom (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Id-Iom (Creative Commons)

One thing I have discovered lately is that I struggle when I’m busy and I don’t have what I call “clear space” to think through issues and challenges. But the slippery slope I get caught on is that I allow things to crowd in and take up that space, instead of pushing them away in order to create it.

Rather than build time into my day to work on projects or figure out solutions to issues, I get sucked into email, voicemails, questions, urgent “fires” that need to be put out – and then by the time I do sit down to work on a project, I’m mentally exhausted by being pulled in so many different directions.

Instead of being proactive, I’m being reactive.

And worst of all, I’m teaching people how to treat me – that it’s ok to expect me to jump at their every request.

My most common response is “I haven’t had time to figure that out yet.” In reality, if I could only find a way to “figure that out,” my team would have fewer questions and be more self-sufficient.

What I need to do is set aside a block of time – an hour at least – in the morning when I’m fresh, and target a challenge or project that will be my focus for that time. And I need to send calls to voicemail, turn off email, post a sign or whatever it takes to spend that time uninterrupted.

By setting up a boundary around myself and taking the initiative to push away other obligations during that time, I can finally do the planning, strategizing and “work” that I need to do in order to move forward. In fact, some of the interruptions might be eliminated by spending that time finding ways to improve communication and put new processes in place.

What do you need to do to create the “clear space” to think through your challenges?

Learning to work differently

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Photo courtesy of Julie Falk (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Julie Falk (Creative Commons)

I am a planner by nature. I thrive on lists and checking things off as completed. I love having an organized plan for the day, and seeing the progress.  I’m also used to being at my desk and on the computer a lot.

As I transition to a new role at work, my lists, plans and days have gotten more nebulous – instead of a list, I have a bunch of notes, and instead of a plan for the day, it seems I am pulled in multiple directions with changing priorities, each with its own sense of urgency. I’m taking care of things before they ever even make it to a list. And I’m not at my desk much anymore.

Rather than swimming laps in a calm pool, I feel like I’m being tossed by the waves in the ocean.

One of the benefits of the new way of working is the connections and the relationships that I’m building. I want my team to realize I am action-oriented, and working toward being proactive instead of reactive to issues, challenges and ideas. There are things that will take some thought and a plan, but a lot of what needs to happen, just needs a quick decision so we can move on.

I love touching base with each person and learning what their suggestions are or struggles they are having for which we can consider alternatives. Whether it’s an issue of space or a process, I’m excited to get their feedback.

It’s also important to be speaking to customers and getting to know the regulars – or welcoming the first-timers. Same with donors at our back door and our volunteers who help in so many ways – thanking them face-to-face is a privilege.

These days I seem to have less focused desk time and more fluid activities, but at the end of the day, I feel like I’ve accomplished more if I have built connections, taken care of immediate issues, and been present for my team.

How do you need to work differently to be more effective?

Rewarding myself

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Photo courtesy of JimmyMac210 (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of JimmyMac210 (Creative Commons)

Sometimes the only way I can get things done is to make up a reward that I’ll give myself when I’m finished. Do you do that?

For instance, in the winter, one of the best ways I can get through a frigid run outside is to tell myself there’s a hot shower and coffee waiting when I finish.

This weekend, I had several “not favorite” chores I needed to get done, so I told myself I could sit on the porch and read for a bit when I was through (and have a bite of dark chocolate). It sure did help me get through those chores so I could relax for a bit.

I need to think more in terms of rewards at work too. If I sit at my desk and finish that report, then I get to do ____ (fill in that blank). If I’m smart about the reward, I can link it to something that is productive and helpful (even healthy) and make even more progress.

For instance, if I tell myself I will finish that report at my desk, and then do a walk around the building, touching base with my team, I not only get some exercise that clears my head, but I reconnect with my team, and usually find things that I can either improve on, congratulate them on, or consider solutions for. That’s a win win win!

How can you reward yourself for finishing those unpleasant tasks?

Finding the right rhythm

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Photo courtesy of Mr. Nixter (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Mr. Nixter (Creative Commons)

In the midst of change, it’s important to find your rhythm, otherwise you will feel like you are part of a marching band but not in step with the rest of the band.

Whatever the changes are – new job, moving to a new area, family changes – it’s hard at first because you are still trying to do things the old way. You have to really concentrate to deal with the new situation and nothing flows like it did before.

You may have a new location to get used to, new team dynamics to navigate, or different personalities and moods to learn. What I have found is most useful though, is to throw out my old expectations completely, and just start building new ones.

The longer I want or wish things could be the way they were or expect them to flow the way they did, the more frustrated I will become and the harder it will be to get used to the change.

If I toss out my former expectations and embrace the changes, then I have a much better chance of getting into a rhythm and moving forward. I can get back in step with the band.

As I go through a job transition now, I am bumping up against the fact that my days are no longer structured and organized, checking things off a list and being able to show what I’ve accomplished at the end of the day. Instead, I’m in and out of my office, all over the building, and pulled in a bunch of different directions. Instead of a list of tasks to follow, I have a mass of notes and things to follow-up on, and I seem to move things along, not finish and check them off.

Now that I’m realizing that this is the new normal, I have better able to end my days knowing that I did accomplish things, just in a different way. I’m more productive, and able to see my results in ways other than checking them off a list.

How can you get in the right rhythm?

Just a quick question

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Photo courtesy of Wee Sen Goh (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Wee Sen Goh (Creative Commons)

Can I just ask a quick question?

It seems simple enough, but usually that quick question is more involved than either party expects.

Plus it is an interruption to a train of thought that derails me from what I was doing.

How many times have you stopped to answer that “quick question” and then sat there totally lost as to what you were doing before?

I’m struggling with too many moving parts at my job right now, and feel like I’m treading water most days with only my nose stuck out of the water. One thing I have discovered is that any time I get up from my desk, I take a pen and pad of paper because no matter where I am going, someone will catch me along the way to ask or tell me something, or I will notice something that I need to take care of. Forget me remembering it if I haven’t written it down (and actually, I still may not deal with it right away, but at least it’s captured).

I am learning that I need to have that pen and paper handy even when I’m at my desk to avoid the problem of losing my thought process when someone asks that quick question. I can jot down what I was working on, or where I stopped, and then have a better chance of picking that project or idea back up and running with it.

I know that people mean well when they interrupt with that “quick question” but it does make me think twice when I step to another office to do the same thing. My priority may not be their priority, and sometimes email or waiting can be better for things that need an answer but not this minute.

How can you be more effective in getting the information you need without interrupting others?

Walk the building

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Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk (Creative Commons)

What do you do when you’ve been knee deep in a project, especially a project that involves intense thought or computer work? How do you clear your head?

I’ve been doing something that my supervisor actually suggested and it works wonders. I walk the building.

What I have discovered is that not only does it change my focus from the computer screen, but it helps me reset my thinking. I take a pad of paper with me, and so far every time I have done this, I have come back with several pages of notes – not necessarily about the project I was working on, but other things that I see that I would have never noticed before.

I work at a nonprofit in a warehouse-type space, so it might be a section of shelving that needs to be straightened. Or a process we need to look at to improve. I might bump into one of my staff who I’ve been meaning to ask about something – or who have been trying to catch me to check on an issue.

So far, it has proven to be very productive time with the added bonus of actually clearing my head to go back and finish whatever project I was working on to begin with.

I might need to add walking the building to my schedule each day. Who knows what I might accomplish?

Living by post it notes

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Photo courtesy of Judit Klein (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Judit Klein (Creative Commons)

I sometimes find myself living by post it notes – a series of the little notes stuck to my desk as a reminder of all the things I need to do. What a great feeling it is to be able to take one off my desk and throw it away!

I realize that is not an effective way to schedule my day, but some days, that’s the best I can do. I try very hard to be proactive and keep accurate lists of what I need to do, but then when craziness ensues, the best I can do is write it on a post it and stick it to my desk!

I function best when I am able to process and integrate new tasks into my lists, and keep things separated by topics – errands, calls, super urgent, online, long-term, etc., along the lines of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) methodology. Having everything on lists, and not in my head is definitely the most productive way to get things accomplished. Besides, if I don’t have it written down, I likely won’t remember it.

But I have to admit, in order to follow GTD, I need to be able to review my tasks regularly – which is kind of unrealistic. I end up putting out fires pretty much all day every day, and have definitely learned that if I don’t write things down, I don’t remember. Hence the post it notes.

Think about it though – it would be so much more productive if I saw my entire scope of responsibilities and tasks all together – then I could make reasonable judgments on what will move projects forward, not just tasks. It feels great to mark things off (or toss post its, as it were), but how much better would it feel to be making a different on the larger project scale?

What do you need to do to quit living by post its?

Low hanging fruit

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Photo courtesy of Ross G.  Strachan

Photo courtesy of Ross G. Strachan

What do you do when your task list is so long and unruly that you freak out and become completely overwhelmed?

That is me lately – I’ve been dealing with the urgent too much. I have been putting out so many fires and taking so many notes, that when I finally sat down to see what all I really needed to be doing, I had to throw my hands up in frustration because there was so much to be done.

I took a deep breath, and went back through my list with a highlighter to pick out what I call “low hanging fruit.”

I knew there was no way I could get it all done quickly, so I highlighted some tasks that were fairly simple to accomplish and that didn’t take a huge block of time to complete. Then I got started.

A couple of the items involved quick email as a starting point to a larger project. I filed a few things that I no longer needed. I made a couple of phone calls.

I couldn’t believe the lift I got from finally accomplishing even things so small. I had not checked off any major projects, or spent any significant time working through solutions, but I had made some progress that would make those things easier later on.

Plus, when I went back through the list, it felt incredible to be able to mark things off, and then I could refine my list so it wasn’t quite so overwhelming. I also took the time to block out work time on my calendar for some of the larger projects.

Had I focused on one of the major projects first, I would have been distracted by the volume of little tasks still outstanding. If I had continued to work on refining the task list, I would have been spinning my wheels.

Instead, I felt like I had made major progress and was energized to take care of even more things. Now I can make reasonable progress, and feel confident that other things aren’t falling through the cracks.

What low hanging fruit can you knock off?