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When Busy Becomes “Bad”

In today’s non-stop world, when you ask someone, “How are you doing?” – the answer is very often “Busy!” We’re all so busy these days, aren’t we?

Whenever I hear that response, I like to dive deeper and ask, “Are you good busy…or bad busy?” There’s a big difference between the two.

“Good” Busy

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What is “good” busy like? Good busy is when you have work and life to deal with, but you feel inspired, excited, and happy to take on those tasks. You know they will lead to accomplishments, new heights, and enjoyable experiences, so you do them with a spring in your step and grounded in a sense of purpose.

Good busy is a feeling of being “in the zone.” You know what you’re doing, you have the support you need, you have a vision of where you’re headed, and every step moves you closer to your North Star. Even if some of the tasks on your list aren’t necessarily “fun,” you still don’t mind because you’re focused on the ultimate outcomes, fueled by the passion you feel for that vision. Your schedule may be full, but you feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction at the end of each day.

“Bad” Busy

By contrast, what about “bad” busy? This kind of busy occurs when you’re faced with tasks you don’t enjoy and that aren’t helping you move toward an inspiring vision that would keep your morale high, even if you get tired. As a result, bad busy can be physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting.

Why does bad busy happen? Here are a few reasons I’ve seen through clients in my executive coaching practice:

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  • You’re doing your job because you have to. You need to pay your mortgage and your bills, and this is the way you’ve always accomplished that. Even though you aren’t passionate about your job, you don’t have faith that there’s another way to maintain the same standard of living. You simply feel obligated to continue with the familiar because, well, you just don’t see any other option.
  • You don’t know if you’re doing a good job at work because you aren’t getting enough honest feedback from anyone. Fueled by fear, your mind races 24/7, always nervous that you aren’t delivering well enough. “What if I’m not getting it right? What if I lose my job?” is the consistent, subconscious self-talk that underlies your days.
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  • You have too many demands and not enough focus on priorities. As a result, you don’t spend enough time with your family, your direct reports, your boss…or yourself. You’re never really present, either. Instead, you worry about what happened in the last meeting or what might happen tomorrow, spending mental focus time concerned about the past or being anxious about the future.
  • You have to travel a lot, and you’re always packing and unpacking, running to and from airports, changing time zones and climates. This leaves you stressed and tired, with that ever-present feeling of never quite being “caught up.”

Reflecting objectively on your own situation, what would you say you have more of in your life right now – “good” busy days, or “bad” busy days?

Shifting “Bad” Busy to “Good” Busy

When I asked the good-bad-busy ratio question of Graham, a C-Suite client of mine, he reflected for a moment.

“I’m not honestly sure,” he finally shared.  “I really do enjoy my work and feel that most of the time I’m living life with purpose. But, I also admit there are times when I feel overwhelmed.  Would you consider being overwhelmed ‘bad’ busy?”

I shared with Graham the four above-outlined scenarios for how to define “bad busy” and asked him if any of those applied.

“On occasion, I experience #3,” he said. “I do have a lot of demands, so I guess I could prioritize better… In fact, now that I think of it, having clearer priorities would reduce my angst and help me get rid of that ‘drowning’ feeling I get occasionally, even if I do enjoy what I do.”

Graham and I then reviewed this toolbox of tips below, for how to turn a potential dose of “bad busy” into “good.”    How could YOU™ embrace these, too?

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  • Get honest about your priorities. What is really most important in your life? In response to that question, clients almost always answer “family.” Yet, after doing a time analysis, they discover that they actually spend the least number of waking hours with family. Does that sound familiar to you, too? If so, how can you begin to shift your schedule to have more quality time with the people who mean the most to you?
  • Analyze how you really utilize your time. How many hours per week do you honestly spend doing the things that fuel your soul, help you feel good, and honor who you really are? If you’re spending too little time on these types of activities, look for ways to change. Life is too short to spend so much of it on activities you dislike.
  • Start small. Choose two hours per week to focus on doing something you love. Since busy-ness typically involves the left, logical side of your brain, try something that will inspire the right side of your brain – the creative side. I’m not necessarily suggesting you take a pottery or art class, but simply to do something that’s very different from what you do throughout your day. That change of habit can serve to reboot your sense of well-being.
  • Sit back and assess the end game for you. What do you want to achieve by the end of your career or life – greater success, financial security, making a difference in your community, having more personal satisfaction? If you keep your end game constantly in mind, you’ll make choices that will lead you there.
  • Recognize that you are not a victim. All that is happening to you is a matter of choice. No one has forced you into anything, so the good news is that you can change it. You may feel that you have little choice, but be honest with yourself – that’s just limited thinking. You can find ways to change your circumstances, leading to far more good-busy days than bad-busy days.

The #1 Antidote for “Bad-Busy”

What is the best strategy to combat “bad busy?” Make regular time to do nothing. (Be honest: When was the last time you allowed yourself to do absolutely nothing?)

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Here’s what I do: I take 1-2 minutes a few times throughout the day to center myself, close my eyes, and take deep breaths. If necessary, I close myself off in a meeting room or find a quiet space in a hallway. These short breaks may seem simple and inconsequential, but you’ll be amazed how much even just a couple of minutes can re-energize you and help you feel better, more centered.

The Wisdom of Doing Nothing

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My favorite line from the 2018 movie “Christopher Robin” is when Winnie the Pooh reminds Christopher that “doing nothing often leads to the very best something.” Very true.

So, when life gets busy, pause and ask yourself, “Is this good busy or bad?” If it’s leaning toward bad, remember Winnie the Pooh’s wise words, and make time to do nothing – so that the “very best something” can come your way.

Easy Self-Development – Grow While Listening

Clients often tell me that they don’t have enough time for self-development or that they don’t know how to grow and develop with the limited free time they do have.

For many of my clients, a favorite way to keep “good busy” is to listen to audio books.

Doing so provides the freedom to listen while exercising, while riding the train or driving your car to work, and when you want some positive, self-focused personal time.

If you are interested in exploring some audio books around the topics of leadership, coaching, and branding, feel free to check out the audio versions of some of my most popular books:

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Leading YOU: The power of SELF-LEADERSHIP to build your executive brand and drive career success

 

 

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Master the Brand Called YOU: The proven leadership personal branding system to help you earn more, do more, and be more at work

 

 

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Would YOU Want to Work for YOU? How to build an executive leadership brand that inspires loyalty and drives employee performance

 

 

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Smarter Branding Without Breaking The Bank: Five proven marketing strategies you can use right now to build your business at little or no cost

 

 

Happy listening to YOU™!

 

 

Part IV – My favorite productivity tips & tools for 2018

By now, you’ve likely put New Year celebrations behind you and are fully into 2018. How will you build your brand as a leader this year? On that same point, how will you become more productive and use your time more effectively this year than you did in 2017?

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Back in mid-December, I promised you four short blog posts to share with you easy-to-implement productivity tips & tools. This is the fourth, which includes how to tackle the three biggest time-wasters I’ve discovered from an assessment of my executive coaching clients’ time logs. (For more in-depth time-management strategies, check out my book Leading YOU™: The power of SELF-LEADERSHIP to build your executive brand and drive career success).

And if you missed my first three blog posts, here are the links so that you can apply those tips to your 2018 productivity plan: Installment #1, Installment #2, and Installment #3.

Here’s wishing you a fantastic leadership-brand-building year ahead!

My Favorite Productivity Tips & Tools #10-12:

Tip #10: Email management

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Our phones and computers typically make a sound or vibrate every time we get an email, tempting us to pause what we’re doing and take a look. But unless we’re waiting for specific important material, doing so is a mind distractor – and a major time-waster.

Here’s how you can prevent email from taking up more time than necessary:

  • Come to terms with the truth: The idea that we can “multi-task” is a myth. Indeed, researchers have demonstrated that our brains are simply not capable of doing two things at once. All we can truly do is what is called “rapid refocus” – quickly shifting from one focal point to another. But, rapid refocus tires the brain, actually making us less productive and exhausted by the end of the day.
  • Instead, dedicate focused time in your schedule for reading, writing, and responding to emails. Give yourself (and your team) specific guidelines for email management, and stick to them. For example, let others know that you’ll be working on email without interruption at specific times each day, such as 9:00-10:00 a.m. and 3:00–4:00 p.m.

Tip #11: Saying “no”

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If you’re like most people I’ve worked with, you’ve said “yes” when you really wanted to say “no” more times than you’d like to admit. Why do we do this? There are many reasons, ranging from cultural norms to fear of conflict. But not learning how to say “no” can harm more than just your health. It can actually damage more relationships than it preserves. So what can you do?

  • Get clear on how your life would be better if you could learn to say “no” effectively. Make the longest list possible of all the benefits of saying “no.” For example, your list might include less stress, more time with family, and fewer feelings of resentment toward others.
  • Assess how many tasks or activities you’ve taken on because you didn’t say “no.” Review your to-do’s, and put a checkmark next to each task/activity that you would honestly like to cross off.
  • Recognize opportunities to say “no.” How often do you say “yes” when you’d rather not? Note the times when it felt right to say “yes,” and those when it didn’t.
  • Begin by saying “no” to smaller requests. A sympathetic yet firm “I’m not able to do that right now” works well. If you’re asked why, simply reply that it’s conflicting with your other key priorities. Most reasonable people will accept this as an adequate response.
  • If someone tries to convince you to change your “no” into a “yes,” calmly ask that person to respect your decision as final.
  • Make saying “no” a regular habit. After some practice, you’ll find yourself able to say it to increasingly bigger requests.

 Tip #12: Meetings “triage”

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According to a European survey, the average employee will attend 6,239 meetings in his or her career – a staggering number! Yet 60% of those responding to that same survey said they find meetings “pretty pointless.” Why go? Most people feel they have no choice but to attend. If you’ve been in this position, what can you do?

  • Choose your meetings wisely. Ask for an agenda in advance, and assess if you can honestly offer or receive value from attending.
  • If you truly need to be at a meeting, do you need to be there the entire time? Maybe you can only add value to a particular agenda item. Plan your time – and attendance – accordingly.
  • Could you attend the meeting via video or by phone? (Just be careful: It’s easy to get distracted with emails and other tasks while attending remotely.)
  • If you don’t feel your time is well spent attending a particular meeting, let the planner know that you appreciate being invited but that you feel your attendance isn’t necessary. Then, offer to read a summary of the meeting and follow up with any comments you might have.
  • What if you’re in a meeting that’s being poorly run? Make a calm but firm suggestion: “We seem to be getting off topic. How can we get back on track?”
  • If you’re the person in charge of planning a meeting, make sure it’s truly necessary, and create a tight agenda.

A Bonus for YOU

For more insights into how to take back control of your time, listen to the recording of New Zealand’s “time queen” radio host, Robyn Pearce, as she interviews me about time management:

www.BrendaBence.com/TimeManagementInterview

As always, let me know in the comment section, below, if these tips help you increase your own productivity! Here’s to 2018, and here’s to YOU™!

Part III – My favorite productivity tips & tools for 2018

Happy New Year!  The year 2017 is officially a memory, and 2018 has the full promise of increased productivity, which will help you strengthen your brand as a leader. That’s what this newsletter is all about. So, here’s to accomplishing more than you thought possible in the next 12 months!

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If you read Installment #1 and Installment #2 of this four-part productivity series, you already know the first six productivity tips I recommend you put into practice in 2018. (If not, I encourage you to click on the links and read those first.)

The three next tips I share below involve using tools you most likely already have but in a different way, making it easy to become even more productive as the new year starts.

As always, I look forward to hearing back from you. Do feel free to write me in the comment section below, and let me know how these tips are working for you!

My Favorite Productivity Tips & Tools #7-9:

Tip #7: Connect your laptop/desktop to a second monitor and use two screens.

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I won’t lie:  I initially resisted this idea – big time – because I didn’t want to use up space on my desk. I look back on that resistance now, and laugh at myself!

The productivity I’ve achieved from having more than one computer screen at my desk is so much more important than the seeming “issue” of losing a little desk space (and honestly, a second screen – and/or even third – won’t take much space). What do two screens or monitors allow me to do more easily?

  • Easily copy and paste between files
  • Quickly compare two documents
  • Smoothly transition between different programs
  • Access information more quickly while running multiple programs

The list goes on and on, and being able to accomplish these tasks so much more quickly and efficiently has definitely increased my productivity.

The only downside is that I’ve gotten so accustomed to two screens that, when I’m limited to only my laptop (e.g., when I travel), I immediately recognize how much my productivity decreases without two screens!

A second screen is a small expense these days, and I believe you’ll quickly discover that your increased productivity is well worth the expense.  In our office, we use 24-inch screens, but even larger can be used.  (Before you buy one, make sure your computer’s video card can handle the monitor you want.)

Tip #8:  Create “Signatures” in Microsoft Outlook.

Do you find yourself frequently answering the same types of questions via email? I do.  For me, it’s inquiries such as, “Where can I order your books?” or “How can I find out about your availability for speaking or coaching?”

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Similar to the Shortkeys tip I shared with you in my first productivity blog post, I use the Microsoft Outlook “Signatures” function to respond at length to regularly asked questions I receive via email.  (In our office, we use the version found in the Microsoft Office 365 subscription.)  As of early 2017, Outlook had more 400 million users worldwide, so it’s a widely used program both at work and at home, both on PCs and Mac. (Of course, the Signatures function is just one of hundreds of ways you can use Outlook to save time and increase efficiency.)

Just like you can create an email signature that goes out on every email you send, so you can create Outlook “Signatures” to respond to regularly asked questions.  The Outlook Signature feature also allows you to include a graphic, hyperlinks, and more. Thanks to labeling each signature created in a clear way, I can easily click on the specific one I want. It automatically inserts the words, saving me time (not having to type the same answers over and over), but still allowing me to personalize the response as I want to.

How could YOU™ use Outlook Signatures to prevent unnecessary retyping, and save you time?

Tip #9: Send audio messages via WhatsApp.

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Created in 2009 by two former employees of Yahoo!, WhatsApp has become the “go-to” app around the world for no-cost texting. One advantage is that you can use it if you have WiFi service but no cell signal so it’s popular with people on the go. Facebook acquired the app in 2014 for $19 billion, and it now has more than 1.3 billion users worldwide. It’s currently tied with Facebook Messenger as the most popular instant messaging app. Quite a success story!

While I love using WhatsApp for instant messaging and group chats, I’ll admit that it can be a bit slow and tedious to type messages on a phone. That’s why I enjoy using WhatsApp’s audio messaging function, recording a voice message instead of typing. It’s not only faster but it’s more personal, too, and I can make a more meaningful connection with the receiver of the message.  Plus, I can use inflection in my voice to clarify anything that words alone don’t quite communicate in writing.

If you don’t yet have WhatsApp, you can download it here. Once you do, in what ways could you use WhatsApp audio to your advantage?

As always, let me know in the comment section below, how these tips help you increase your productivity! Happy New Year, and I look forward to communicating with you throughout 2018.

Here are my favorite productivity tips & tools – Part II

Billionaire John Paul Getty was a serial cigar smoker until he realized one day that – based on what he would earn hourly – he was spending the equivalent of $50,000 per year … smoking. That wasn’t $50,000 worth of cigars – it was $50,000 worth of his time. That kind of perspective definitely helps highlight the “time is money” concept, doesn’t it?

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Think about the words we use to speak about time. We spend it, waste it, and save it – just like money. We put a premium on it. If you thought of every minute of your day as being worth, say $1,000, wouldn’t you look at that minute differently?

As I said in my last blog entry, this is a time of year when we really feel the squeeze of our to-do lists. The holiday fun can become a chore as we try to juggle work and family obligations and pressures – to use our time most effectively.

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So, in the spirit of giving, here is my second installment of productivity tips and tools that I’ve discovered over the years. This time, I want to focus on the person which most busy individuals neglect – themselves! My hope is that this post will set you on a positive, new course for 2018 so that you always find time for YOU™ in the midst of the many demands you face.

To respect your precious time, it should only take 5-10 minutes to read these tips. As always, let me know what you think! Feel free to share your response in the comment section below.

My Favorite Productivity Tips & Tools – Tips #4 – 6

Tip #4: Get clear on how you really use your time.

Most of us never stop to think about how we actually spend our time. That’s why I recommend creating a “Time Log.”  How?  For 7-14 days, track all that you do every 15 minutes, from the time you get up until the time you go to bed. That may sound daunting, but I promise – doing this is an eye-opener!  The key is to be honest with yourself… just observe what you are doing, objectively – and write it down. Don’t try to sugarcoat it.

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This simple exercise has helped hundreds of clients get clear on what they honestly do each day (not just what they think they do). In my book, Leading You: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success, I provide a format for a time log and walk you step by step through creating a log so that you can not only get clear on how you are using your time – but, once you analyze the outcomes, to help you shift to using every precious minute of your life more wisely.

Bottom line: Change your perspective about time, and you will act differently toward the time you have. Try it!

Tip #5: Make physical exercise a regular part of your day.

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Successful serial entrepreneur Richard Branson gets more done in a day than most of us could dream of. To what does Sir Branson attribute his ability to be so productive?  He’s very consistent in his answer: He owes much of it to his daily practice of exercising – first thing in the morning.

I raise this because one of the most frequent complaints I hear from my coaching clients is, “I never have enough time to exercise!”

Now, granted, Branson gets up at 5:00 a.m. every day to work out , which may not be feasible for all of us. But with a little ingenuity, there are ways to work in that all-important productivity-producing exercise, which will not only likely add years to your life (hence, ultimately more time) but will also give you more energy to accomplish what you want every day.

Here are a few examples:

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My favorite way to exercise while working!

  • I use a treadmill desk while attending to emails or other computer work.  I can fit in a good walk while getting work done. I love it and strongly encourage others to explore it, too.
  • No room for a treadmill in your office?  Trying sitting on a fitness ball at your desk, which is good for your core and your balance. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to bounce up and down on it throughout the day!
  • Use a Steppie Balance Board to stand while you work. It strengthens your balance and give your core and leg muscles a nice workout.
  • Jump on a trampoline at your standing desk. Now, honestly, I’ve never done this personally, but a friend of mine swears by it. Try it – maybe you’ll like it!

The point is:  There are ways to exercise even while you work, and that will increase your productivity.  Don’t let lack of time be your excuse.

Tip #6:  Use so-called “down time” wisely.

Have you ever thought about how much time you spend in line, waiting for meetings, driving to work, sitting in airports, waiting for immigration officials, or sitting on airplanes? How about using that time to develop your skills?

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One of my favorite ways to use that seeming “idle” time is to listen to audio books. They can teach you valuable lessons which you can use both in your work and life. Why sit idle when you can use the time to set the stage for self-improvement and advance in your career … while you wait? That’s why I’ve make sure that all of the books I’ve written are recorded and available in audio form, too.

 I hope these tips are valuable to you as ways to improve your productivity and use your time smartly!  I’ll post another few tips soon. In the meantime, all the best to you – enjoy this precious “time” of the holiday season!

Here are my favorite productivity tools to help make 2018 your best year yet

“It’s December already? How did that happen?”

These are words I’m hearing a lot right now in my executive coaching practice.

Yes, indeed, it’s that time of the year – when we realize a new year is just around the corner.  That usually means joy, celebration, and hopeful expectations about what the new year will bring.

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But it’s also a period when a lot of clients share with me that they are feeling pressure – trying to squeeze in last-minute deals to meet tough year-end revenue and profit goals at work while the tensions at home rise due to children facing final exams and everyone trying to squeeze in meaningful family connections – and holiday shopping.  There never seems to be enough time!

In my book, Leading YOU™, released earlier this year, I focus an entire chapter on the importance of managing time. A critical part of self-leadership and building a great brand for yourself as a leader is how well you use the 24 hours you have each and every day.

Over the past 15 years as a coach and speaker, I’ve experimented with a lot of productivity tools – some “techie,” some not. Some have been absolutely amazing – saving me loads of time.  Others fizzled.

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So, as we prepare to end 2017 and move into 2018, I thought I’d share my findings with you – the very best productivity tools I’ve discovered over the years. This, to help YOU™ get a jump-start on your productivity in 2018, and to face the new year with cool, calm, and collected confidence.

I’ll share these tips every few days in the coming weeks. To respect your time(!), I’ll keep these tips short and to the point, sharing just a few in each blog post. They shouldn’t take more than 5-10 minutes to read.

Here are my first few productivity tools, below.  I’d love to hear what you think!  Feel free to share your response in the comment section below.

Tip #1:   Use voice-activated software to dictate emails.  I can type about 100 words per minute, but no matter how fast I type, I can still speak the same words more quickly.  So, to save time on typing and emails, I use Dragon Naturally Speaking, a voice-activated software.

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I speak into a headset, and DNS types whatever I say – just as quickly as I say it. This single tech solution has saved me hundreds of hours of typing time!  I can complete my morning email routine in less than half of the time it used to take me, making DNS one of the best time-saving techniques I have ever used.

What if you have an accent and/or you are not a native English speaker?  No problem.  DNS also trains itself to learn your voice so, it will recognize and type whatever you say. Available for both PC and Mac.

Tip #2:  Use Shortkeys for your most common phrases.  When you’re in a quiet place where you can’t dictate using Dragon Naturally Speaking, Shortkeys comes to the rescue!

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Have you ever noticed that you tend to type the same phrases over and over again? I do, too. Words like “Thank you, and best regards, Brenda” or instructions to a team member, such as “Please set up an electronic invitation for this event.”  Instead of wasting my time typing those frequently recurring phrases again and again, I set up Shortkeys so that it recognizes a code for my key phrases (e.g., “tybr” for the first phrase above, and “eli” for the second phrase). Boom!  They are typed out immediately upon using those codes. As such, Shortkeys has also saved me countless amounts of time throughout my day.

Tip #3:   Be productive – even in the shower!  As an author and blogger, I always have ideas popping up in my head that I want to jot down. So, you will find a notepad and pen handy in all rooms of my house and office – always within reach.

But, what about those amazing ideas that hit me when I’m in the shower?  They often used to fade away before I had a chance to jot them down, causing me frustration and lost inspiration.  Maybe you’ve had that happen to you, too?

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Not anymore. Earlier this year, I found Aquanotes, completely waterproof notepads that allow you to record your great ideas while you’re in the shower.  Use the suction cups on the back of the notepad to stick it to the shower wall, and use the soy-based pencil to write down your great ideas – guaranteed not to smudge.  I even take an Aquanotes pad and pencil to the swimming pool, as I can write on it while completely immersed in the water!  

I hope you’ve enjoyed this initial installment of “My Favorite Productivity Tips.”  I encourage you to try them out and/or give one or more of these tools to someone this holiday season!

I’ll write more soon. In the meantime, please send me a note via the comment section below, and share any other great time-saving tips you’ve run across.   I look forward to hearing back from you!

Take care, and all the best – Brenda (this phrase was typed with Shortkeys…)

How Well Do YOU Manage this Critically Important Balance? Self-Leadership Challenge #13

My executive coaching client, Myra, struggled with what I call the “Strategy vs. Execution Dilemma.” She was a successful leader, in the running to become a Senior Vice President. She had gotten there by being known for producing, for always making sure that she and her team members were seen as delivering desired outcomes.

At the surface, this would seem like a good thing, right? So, you can imagine Myra’s surprise when, during her performance review, her boss told her point-blank that the promotion she wanted so badly wasn’t going to happen. The reason? Myra wasn’t considered a strategic thinker. Ouch.

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Myra immediately reached out to set up a coaching session. As she settled into the chair across from me, she admitted right up front that it was probably true. “Ever since my boss gave me the feedback, I’ve been thinking about what he said … and it’s true. I do typically make sure the team and I are busy doing things, reaching our daily, weekly, and monthly objectives toward delivering our major projects. And that means I do spend the bulk of my time attending to details. That’s been a good way to get where I am. But clearly, it isn’t going to get me to where I want to go.”

After a bit more reflection, Myra shared that this tendency actually went way back. Getting things done efficiently and with excellence was how she impressed teachers as a student in school as well as every boss she’d ever had. And she had always been rewarded well for her “get it done” behavior, too—earning good grades as a student and collecting raises and promotions once she got into her career. Clearly and consistently, she proved that she was a go-getter and a producer.

But now, that seemingly positive behavior was holding her back. Indeed, while Myra and her team were delivering consistent excellence in execution, she wasn’t doing the strategic work necessary to take her team, her function, and, therefore, the company to the next level.

Given her busy day-to-day world, it had never occurred to Myra that taking time to sit quietly and think strategically was actually what she was being paid to do. But, now it struck her that she was actually only doing part of her job—in short, she was underperforming as a leader by not taking regular time to focus on strategy.

For Myra, thinking strategically would represent a shift. It would take time away from attending to the day-to-day details of her workplace. It would mean sitting still, not visibly “doing” anything except thinking, reflecting, and challenging herself mentally. She had been so busy “doing” all of her life, and the road to success had been paved with accolades related to her level of activity. So, this shift felt incredibly awkward, even “wrong,” “wasteful” and “not productive.” She had fears of people judging her for being lazy.

Can you relate to Myra’s situation? If so, you’re hardly alone. There seems to be an unspoken belief at work that just sitting and thinking is not a justifiable use of time. Some clients have told me that they feel so guilty if they aren’t visibly “doing” something all of the time that they close the door or pull the shades in their office when they need to take time to think. They want to avoid being perceived as “not productive.”

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As children, we’re often warned to stop “daydreaming”—both in school and at home. Our parents, teachers, and other authority figures may not have had much respect for staring out the window. Today, even though you are now in a higher-level position, that old conditioning may still be in your head, causing you to feel as though you’re wasting time if you schedule “strategic thinking” in your calendar. But, just like Myra, this belief may be holding you back from future career success.

When this self-awareness surfaced in our discussion, Myra’s initial dismay and frustration turned to excitement as she began to contemplate the possibility of spending more of her time thinking strategically. But she wasn’t sure what that would look like or how to go about doing it.

How to Balance Thinking and Doing

Here’s what I asked Myra to do, and you can try it, too, right now: Grab a piece of paper, draw a circle on it, and let it serve as a pie graph that represents 100% of your time. At the top, title it “Strategy vs. Execution.”

Divide the graph into two pieces—one portion that reflects how much time you currently spend executing tasks and attending to details (execution/doing) and the other that reflects how much time you currently spend on thinking strategically (strategy/thinking). Be honest!

Label this circle “Current.” If you’re like many leaders I’ve worked with, your chart may reveal that you spend anywhere from 80-90% of your time executing, and only about 10-20% strategizing.

Next, underneath the same circle, draw a line, a colon, and another line that looks like this: ___________ : ___________.

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Let this represent the optimal ratio for these two aspects of self-leadership—how you probably should split your time between strategy and execution, given your current position. Is it 60% strategy/40% execution, 50:50, or something else? The best ratio for you will depend upon your organization and the expectations of your position (be sure to keep in mind the position you hope to achieve in the future, too).

Now that you’ve reflected on how much time you should optimally spend on strategy, it’s time to make changes. I’ve found that the only way strategic thinking will “happen” in the middle of a busy week is for you to actually make it happen. How? Well, here’s what Myra did: She started with reserving one hour of strategic thinking per week and increased those hours over time until she had reached her optimal ratio. As a result, her next performance review was much improved, and within a year, she was once again being considered for a Senior Vice President position.

Make a commitment to set aside strategic thinking time, like Myra did: Shut your door and just think. To start, I suggest you begin with one hour, once or twice a week. Don’t agree to take calls during that reserved time, and don’t be tempted to go to meetings. Just look at either your team, your function, or the entire company (as appropriate, given your position), and reflect on where and how your area of the company gets stuck, how to improve that and move forward, and how the company’s progress and prosperity might change for the better as a result. Don’t think about any details at this stage—only strategy. Decide that you’ll set aside at least that much time every week, no matter what.

That’s how great self-leaders achieve a positive balance of thinking and doing.  So, how does YOUR ratio look right now when it comes to strategy vs. execution?

For more self-leadership tips, pick up a copy of my latest book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success.

Self-Leadership Challenge #2: The Two Biggest Time-Wasters that Great Self-Leaders Avoid

As an executive coach, I’ve reviewed the time logs of hundreds of senior managers and executives. In those logs, where leaders track their movements at 15-minute increments for two full weeks, the two biggest and most consistent time-wasters that great self-leaders avoid have jumped out from the page: (1) attending meetings and (2) writing/responding to emails. Does this sound familiar to you, too? Let’s explore each of these, one at a time.

#1 Time-Waster: Meetings that Hijack Your Time. A survey conducted among 2,000 British employees highlighted that the average UK worker will attend 6,239 meetings during his/her career. Is that just a “British thing?” Not according to the time logs of my clients, who hail from over 60 nationalities and 70 industries.

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The number of meetings held daily at any given company is staggering. And since senior leaders seem to be invited to the bulk of those meetings—and often feel obliged to attend—the victim mentality frequently kicks in when I discuss this topic. “But I have to go to that meeting. I don’t have a choice,” I hear leaders say. This, in spite of the fact that a whopping 60% of the people in that same British survey said they find meetings “pretty pointless.”

If attending meetings is one of your biggest time-robbers, too, never fear. There is something you can do about it.

As a coach, I’m often asked to shadow execs in their workplace, usually in meetings. I sit there quietly observing so that I can provide feedback later about what I saw and heard. As I look around those meeting rooms, I sometimes pause to consider the amount of total salary that’s being spent by the organization to have all of those individuals in the same room at the same time. Can you imagine?

If this is true for you, or if you find yourself in a meeting that doesn’t truly require your presence, pause and reflect: You may actually be doing a disservice to your organization by attending that meeting. Think about it: Every minute you spend during work hours is a company asset. Just like you wouldn’t misuse a company car or waste office equipment or materials, so you shouldn’t waste your limited time in meetings that don’t honestly need your talents and attention. Your duty is to use your time—the company’s asset—in the most effective way possible.

How Do Great Self-Leaders Use Their Time Wisely? They Choose Their Meetings Wisely

The key is to get real about which meetings you honestly do and do not need to attend. That means saying “yes” only to meeting invitations where your presence is absolutely required and you can add value. How can you tell if a meeting is necessary or if it’s going to be a time-waster?

First, ask for an agenda in advance that clearly states the purpose/objective of the meeting. Once you get the agenda, here are some tips to determine if your attendance is truly required, as well as ways to say “no,” how to handle difficult meetings, and how to effectively plan your own meetings.

  • Will it truly benefit the company if you attend? If so, how?
  • Will it benefit you as a leader if you attend? Perhaps the meeting is to cover a topic you know little about, but you’d like to improve your understanding. Or perhaps it’s a meeting that will be attended by much higher senior-level leaders, and you want to observe how they conduct themselves.
  • Would attending the meeting be a possible means for you to strengthen important relationships, either with a particular person or with a specific group of people?
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  • Is it truly necessary for you to be there, or could you ask someone else to attend in your place? For example, could this meeting be a good learning and development opportunity for one of your direct reports?
  • Do you need to attend the entire meeting or, after review of the agenda, is there only a portion of the meeting that’s truly relevant to you? This is a consistent problem shared by many of my clients. They sit through an entire 3-hour meeting even though they were only needed for, say, 30 minutes.
  • Could you attend the meeting via video or by phone? Just be careful: It’s easy to get distracted with other tasks, such as emails, when you aren’t physically present at a meeting.
  • Let’s say you’ve reviewed the agenda and have determined that it really isn’t necessary for you to attend, neither for the company nor for you personally. How do you get out of attending the meeting gracefully and still preserve positive relationships with the organizers? Sometimes, you simply have to say “no” with calm confidence. Let the meeting planner know that you appreciate being invited but that you feel your attendance isn’t necessary. Then, either offer to read a summary of the meeting and follow up with any comments you might have, or have someone else attend in your place.
  • What if you are in a meeting that’s running overtime? Opt to excuse yourself by saying something like, “I have to stick to schedule and leave, but thank you in advance for sending me the meeting summary—I appreciate that.”
  • For meetings you do decide to attend, schedule a 10-15 minute buffer before and after. Use the time before the meeting to ask yourself: What is the objective of this meeting? Why am I attending? What do I personally want to achieve by attending? What does success look like for me at the end of the meeting? Then, after the meeting, ask yourself: What were the one, two, or three key takeaways from that meeting? What are the implications for my team or function? What are the next steps I’ve committed to, if any, and who needs to be aware of them?

#2 Time-Waster: Emails—The Constant Interruption. Since our phones and computers typically make a sound or vibrate every time we get an email, it can be tempting to interrupt what we’re doing to take a look. But unless you’re waiting for specific important inbox material, this is a major distraction and time-waster. Each time you interrupt your concentration, you have to take a few seconds or even minutes to regain the same level of focus on what you were doing before.

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The idea that we can “multi-task” is a myth. Indeed, researchers have demonstrated that our brains are simply not capable of doing two things at once. All we can truly do is what is called “rapid refocus”—quickly shift from one focal point to another—and doing so not only wastes time, but tires the brain, too. The outcome? We are more likely to make more mistakes and be burnt out at the end of the day.

Here are two tips to prevent emails from distracting you and robbing you of so much time:

  • Dedicate focused time for reading, writing, and responding to emails. Give yourself specific guidelines for email management, and stick to it. For example, let your staff know that you’ll be working on email without interruption from, say, 8:30-9:15 every morning and from 3:00-4:00 every afternoon. If you plan for this focus and make it an ongoing habit, you’ll be amazed by how much you can accomplish.
  • Get voice-activated software, and dictate your emails by voice instead of typing them. I use software called Dragon Naturally Speaking, but there is other voice-activated software to choose from, too. Be sure to program it to understand your accent and your specific enunciation patterns. Once you do, you may become addicted to it like me, especially if you aren’t a particularly speedy typist. I’ve seen this type of software save hours per week for many of my coaching clients as well.

How much time do you think you can save by following these two key tips?

Want to learn more? My book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success, includes several more valuable time and meeting management techniques for self-leadership success.