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I have a confession. Last year I wrote about dealing with workplace interruptions, it’s consistently been one of the most popular posts . You can read it here.  But yesterday I didn’t follow my own advice. I was three-quarters of the way through a task, (upgrading WordPress for this blog)  when I allowed myself to be interrupted. I was carrying out a complicated, manual process, that I’d never done before. I was following written step by step instructions, but lost my train of thought. When I got back to the task, I forgot that there was still one step to do. When I tried to fire up the site again, it didn’t work. Two hours later, with the help of Mohit Gupta, who’s an unbelievably helpful member of a fantastic WordPress Facebook group, I discovered what I’d done – or hadn’t done. God, I felt stupid.

“Bigger chunks of work have natural break points”

What have I learnt? That bigger chunks of work have natural break points, and where I left off wasn’t one of them. So if you can’t find a good place to pause, push through to the end of the task (I couldn’t because I already had brain-fry), or else leave yourself a great big marker where you left off. If I’d done that last one I would have known there was still one step left to do. When I used to draft contracts, that’s exactly what I did when faced with an interruption or distraction.

I also learnt to ask for help earlier rather than later. When you work on your own, it’s easy to become very self-reliant and imagine that it’s better to solve all of the problems you encounter on your own. But there are people in your virtual team who are happy to help.

I won’t make that particular mistake again, but I’ll probably be making others, it’s the best way to learn!


Lionel Messi may be the best footballer in the world, but according to this excellent article in Slate.com, he’s lazy. He doesn’t put in as much effort as Neymar, the other best footballer in the world. He covered less ground in his last game against Switzerland, made fewer sprints (31 v 57) and spent a lot less time in high and medium intensity activity. But Messi has been voted man of the match in all four games he’s played at this World Cup. Neymar has played in as many games, and got man of the match in only two. What’s going on here?

“… Messi is making a big impact, despite his paltry performance figures”

These days, stats on footballers are easy to come by. There are performance analysis programmes like Prozone, that give reams of data, so that coaches can compare one player with another. They measure – yards covered, tackles made, passes completed – all things that correlate in some way with effort. But it’s clear Messi is making a big impact, despite his paltry performance figures. Four goals and one assist. He’s a shark, cruising effortlessly for long stretches of the game, then going for the kill before anyone even realises what he’s up to.

he’s highly valued even though his visible work rate may be lower than his colleagues'”

Messi is a rare case where people aren’t confusing effort with effectiveness. His impact is obvious despite the raw performance analysis, and he’s highly valued even though his visible work rate may be lower than his colleagues’. Work rate – there’s an old-time productivity phrase. It’s something that’s held in high regard in English football and in the English-speaking world workplace. The England football team did a lot of running around and put in a great deal of “work”, but to no avail, the result was two losses and a draw. Completely unproductive, because they didn’t get beyond the group stage.

Many workplaces actually encourage this culture of valuing work rate over effectiveness. Busy work attracts far more attention than effortless productivity. People will tell you how busy they are, have a diary full of meetings and conference calls and work late. How productive are they really?

The biggest favour you could do for your team and yourself would be to recognise the people who are having the biggest impact, but who don’t seem to be making much effort. Maybe they leave work on time, don’t send as many emails, don’t go to as many meetings, but if you really looked, you’d vote them man or woman of the match.



Is your to do list getting you down? Do you spend more time on it than you’d like, and use it to procrastinate? Your to do list shouldn’t be a burden, and it definitely shouldn’t be longer than five items. How do you decide which 5 items to choose? Imagine you have a great big Inbox, divided into two compartments. It holds your backlog of short-term tasks in the first compartment and your backlog of long-term projects in the second compartment. Let’s distinguish between a project and a task:

  • A project is a series of linked, bite size tasks which, done in the right order at the right time, will achieve a bigger goal. “Learn French”. Long Term. Use a calendar.
  • A task is a simple instruction with a finish timelearn 10 irregular verbs by 6pm today. Short term. Use a clock.

Your five items should always be bite-size tasks specific enough so you can do them within the space of a day. But you should pick from both compartments, so you complete short-term tasks and move forward on long-term projects. Otherwise “Learn French” could be a never-ending project, never quite finished, because there’s always more to learn. It doesn’t belong on your to do list. Other things that don’t belong on your to do list:

  • Achieve World Peace
  • Fix Global Warming
  • Improve Love Life
  • Get Dressed
  • Brush Teeth (unless you’re 5 years old)
  • Watch Television

“OK, but you still haven’t said which five items to choose”

You’ve got a great big Inbox to choose from. Which five items do you pick? How do you prioritise? There’s no hard and fast rule but you could grade tasks by difficulty. Do the difficult ones when you have most energy, and before you get too many interruptions. Do the easy ones when you need to coast a bit, but still want to feel productive. And slot in the medium ones when you can. Always, always, make sure you complete your task from the project compartment. If you find you’ve completed your five tasks, and it’s still only 3 o’clock, dive into your Inbox and pick one more.

The key thing is not to treat your Inbox as your to do list. It’s more like an assembly line. You’re moving tasks through to completion, into your Donebox.

Keep on moving.

If you get stuck, maybe you could use a coach. And if you’re not sure, you could have a sample session over Google Helpouts. Click on the link below to find out more.

You already know if you’re time poor.  On the hamster-wheel of life, you’re not sure if you’re running the wheel, or it’s running you. How do you escape time poverty and go to the next level?

One things for sure, working longer hours and cramming more in won’t work. If you add more resources to a team that’s already missing deadlines, it just makes things worse. 

“What you need is way of preventing the fires spreading, and, in time, starting in the first place”

Your first action is to do the one thing you absolutely don’t want to do. STOP. That’s ridiculous, right? How is stopping going to help you get more done? What about all of those fires you need to put out? Here’s the news. If you don’t change what you’re doing, you’ll be consumed anyway. There will always be stuff to do, and there will always be fires. What you need is way of preventing the fires spreading, and, in time, starting in the first place.

“step off the wheel and review your priorities” 

That means taking time to figure out one thing that will help. One thing that will win you a little bit more time in the future. An example might be a visual tool to help you plan. Like a wall chart or a kanban system. It will allow you to see beyond the immediate and urgent, and pick up on the important, more strategic things that drop by the wayside. Then schedule a small amount of time – say 20 minutes, every other day, to step off the wheel and review your priorities. Are you doing the right things, tasks that move you to your long-term goal? Are you doing the right things right, or could the way you execute do with an overhaul?

step back and get some perspective

When you’re stressed, you get tunnel vision. It’s an evolutionary adaptation to help us deal with the threat in front of us. That makes sense when it’s a sabre-tooth tiger filling your field of vision, but not when it’s a looming deadline. That’s when you need to step back and get some perspective, otherwise you’ll never escape the time poverty trap..


“Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is the result of good work habits”

Twyla Tharp

Are you one of those people who believes that creativity and structure just don’t mix? It’s a common trope that creatives need disorder so that they can conjure up great ideas, that creativity emerges from chaos. In many cultures it’s the basis of the creation myth, their account of how all of reality came into being, in a dim and distant past.

In real life that translates into a desk that needs an archaeological dig to find anything, a flexibility with deadlines that pisses off colleagues, and poor planning because you can’t predict what you’re going to do, let alone communicate it to other people.

If that looks, feels or sounds like you, and you’re looking for a better way, read on.

The problem with most productivity or time management systems is that YOU have shrink to fit the system. Resistance is futile.So you carry on with whatever isn’t working for you, rather than become Borg,and lose your individuality. Anything’s better assimilation.

But what if you could use what you have already, and bolt on some extras, without signing your life over to [enter productivity guru’s name here]? Pick ‘n’ Mix from this menu of possible new habits

  1. Work without interruption for a 45 minute stretch. You’ll be 75% more productive.
  2. Always keep a notepad with you, or use the Evernote app to jot down great ideas while you’re waiting for a train or in the dentist’s reception.
  3. When you’re setting a deadline, plan backwards and don’t plan in a vacuum.
  4. Use a visual tools, like a kanban board or a wall planner instead of a to-do list.
  5. Pre-plan your week on Sunday night. Just take 10 minutes to pick out the 5 big things you need to get done in the week. Write them down somewhere where you can see them.
  6. Pre-plan your next day as you finish the day before.
  7. Get one thing done before you look at email/Facebook/Pinterest
  8. Be accountable to someone else. A friend, a colleague, a coach.

Tailor you own system to fit yourself. Of course, if you need a tailor to size you up and customise your outfit, you could always use a coach. And if you’re not sure you want to commit. You could have a sample session over Google Helpouts. Click on the link below to find out more.

“I know my stress is building, because I start getting more speeding tickets”

Last night I was at a CBI dinner, as a guest of my favourite client. I got chatting to a lovely guy who worked in the construction industry. He asked me what I did, and I gave my spiel about reducing stress and helping people use their time better, when long hours and hard work no longer work. The construction industry has been a pretty stressful place over the last five years, and we talked a lot about increased work load and dealing with the pressure that created for him. He was a seasoned veteran of four or five recessions, so he had a good sense of how to weather the storm and keep going – and obviously he worked really hard. But he had a unique way of measuring his stress: there was a direct correlation with the number of speeding tickets he picked up. This is how it worked: because he was cramming more into his day, he drove faster and faster between appointments, trying to fit it all in. So he started  tripping speed cameras as he travelled around. That was his signal to ease back and take a break, otherwise he would lose his health, his driving licence and his job.

What signals do you use to let you know that the pressure is building. How do you pull over into the slow lane and still make progress? Here are 5 ways you can slow down and spend less time in the fast lane, and still be productive.

  1. Pause and reflect. Everyone needs a break in their journey. Paradoxically, stopping for a break increases your productivity and will save you time in the long run. It’s a chance to integrate what you’ve learnt, so you don’t repeat mistakes.
  2. Pace yourself. You won’t be able to drive at full pelt all of the time. Other people will slow you down. Unpredictable conditions mean you can’t proceed at maximum speed, so plan for that.
  3. Allow more time This is connected with number 2. If you add some “white space” buffer time into your schedule even if you meet a problem, you won’t be late.
  4. Be realistic. Just because you seem to have space in your diary to cram in another meeting, it doesn’t mean you actually can. Or that you need to. Here’s what I wrote a few weeks ago about realistic planning.
  5. Take a long-term view. Picking up speeding points wasn’t going to help my new mate get his job done, not if he ended up losing his licence. When we’re stressed, though, our thinking gets blinkered.

Time for PlanningYou’re planning how long a project will take you, so you can set a realistic deadline. If you’re like most of us, you take an “educated guess”, but your guess will fall victim to the Planning Fallacy, because you use the best case scenario about:

  • The amount of time the project will take overall
  • The effect of interruptions and disruptions
  • The impact of illness, holidays, bad hair days
  • The time available to you
  • Conflicts with your other commitments
  • Dependencies you hadn’t considered, like other people

And even if you know about the planning fallacy, it’s hard to cancel out the rosy view and override the “can do” attitude. There is a rich vein of stories about the effect of such blunders. We hear of many public works projects, where the plan had a completion deadline of 12 months, but an achieved completion of 36 months. The FIFA World Cup in Rio this year was bedevilled with late-running and half built stadia. It’s still touch and go.

My personal favourite is a story by Daniel Kahnemann, he won the Nobel prize for Economics for his work on decision-making and, together with Amos Tversky, coined the term Planning Falllacy. But even he fell victim to it. In his book, “Thinking Fast and Slow” he describes the most embarrassing and informative professional mistake of his life. He was designing a text book – about decision making, together with some colleagues. Following a procedure which was outlined in the book to improve the quality of decision making, he  polled his colleagues individually, asking them how long it would take to write the text book. This approach is more effective than reaching a group consensus. The low end estimate was one and a half years, the high end was two and a half. Then Kahnemann asked  the curriculum expert in the team (who had just voted two years) about similar projects with the same context. The answer surprised everybody, including the expert himself,  because when he actually thought about it, 40% of the projects he could think of had never actually finished. The ones that did finish took 7 years or more. 


“After a few minutes of desultory debate, we gathered ourselves together and carried on as if nothing had happened. The book was eventually completed eight years later”

And it was never used.

So how can you correct for the planning fallacy? There are two things to think about: Task Duration – the time it would take if you had a clear, continuous run at it, with no break. And Elapsed Time, the overall time it will take when you take your life into account.

Kahnemann recommended taking an outside view, by consulting the statistics of similar cases – it’s called reference class forecasting. How long has a project like this taken other people in the past? It’s better if you don’t use your own hazy recollections as a reference. Try using an independent third-party, or a disinterested friend.

Another approach to calculate a realistic Task Duration is to divide it up into smaller, concrete steps, that you can visualise yourself doing. This anchors you into reality, and out of wishful thinking, so you have a series of milestones that you can plan with and check progress against. It’s the same technique I used for coaching Marathon runners. Say I decide my task will take 4 hours in total.

Then have a look at your diary. The chances are there’s more in it over the next couple of weeks than there is further out in the future. You’re not really going to have more free time in the future, though. It just means you haven’t filled your diary up yet. So imagine that you’re going to start right now, today. Take the smaller concrete steps and plan them into the free slots in your diary as it is today. You should end up with something like this:


My four hours is now spread out into what free time I have. I can see that in Elapsed Time, my four-hour project is going to take me five days! You can use that 5 days as an estimate, regardless of what the start date actually is. You’ve used your diary for this week to plan a task for any time in the future.

Give it a try.
 Find Out More

Energy at work

People have to come to work, but they don’t have to bring all of themselves to work and they don’t have to work all of the time. Work is contractual, energy is personal. Energy at work is discretionary.

What is it that motivates people to put in that bit extra?

Good leadership has a part to play, and a good leader will know what motivates every person in their team, at an individual level.

But a really good leader will get people to recognise and play to their strengths motivations; – a personal pride in doing a good job; working with good people,; growing their technical knowledge; making a difference – whatever puts a spring in their step.

“One of the best ways of spotting a toxic workplace is noticing the absence of this discretionary energy”

I can’t remember where I first heard the term “mobilising discretionary energy”, but I’ve used it a lot since, when talking about productivity and morale at work. It’s not about working harder or longer, it’s about levering goodwill and not getting in people’s way. One of the best ways of spotting a toxic workplace is noticing the absence of this discretionary energy. In the olden days it used to be called a “work to rule”, now it turns up as a passive aggressive response to poor management. Not that I blame people for reacting that way, I just think withdrawal of goodwill lessens their power even more than incompetent management.

Many modern organisations have concentrated on process improvements, using time and motion techniques to rationalise workflow and de-skill knowledge work. Then it’s not “my” work any more, effectively anyone could do it, you’re as easily replaced as a clapped-out machine on the production line.

Henry Ford brought this method to the motor industry by breaking down the manufacturing process, and getting people to do the same task repetitively, rather than build a whole car. Frederick Taylor widened this out to manufacturing in general, and is said to have been the first management consultant. He believed that a new class of “manager “was required. Workers being incapable of understanding what “work” was, by themselves:

 ‘I can say, without the slightest hesitation,’ Taylor told a congressional committee, ‘that the science of handling pig-iron is so great that the man who is … physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron’

The eventual outcome was high output, but poor quality, as no one person could say “I built that car” and the craftsman status of a car builder was given over to unskilled labour. Build quality eventually improved when the Japanese car industry, and Toyota in particular, introduced quality circles, small teams and the concepts of pride, personal initiative and responsibility and craftsmanship.

These are old-fashioned sounding values, which are easy to forget about in the drive for progress, productivity and efficiency. But in the productivity equation, energy at work is a massive variable that will affect output just as much as streamlining systems, workflow and processes.

Mind the GapQ: Three frogs were sitting on a lily pad. It was a hot Summer’s day, and one decided to jump off and cool down in the pond. How many frogs were still on the lily pad?

A: Three. (scroll down for an explanation)

“Some people characterise it as procrastination, some think they’re plain lazy, and  others think they have a split personality.”

Have you ever made a decision and then emphatically failed to carry that decision through into action? Recently I’ve met a lot of people who are worried about their decision-making abilities. To be more accurate, they’re worried that they don’t do what they’ve decided to do. And they can’t figure out what it is that stops them from moving from “deciding” to doing. It’s fascinating to listen to them talk about it – like there’s two different people, one who decides, and one who stubbornly refuses to carry out the decision.

“if a decision is made and nobody sees it, was there really a decision?”

Some people characterise it as procrastination, some think they’re plain lazy, and  others think they have a split personality. However they explain it, it wastes a lot of time, deciding, un-deciding, re-deciding. Makes you wonder what a decision actually is – if a decision is made and nobody sees it, was there really a decision?  If nothing manifests in the real world, then nothing can be criticised. It can’t be faulted. Blame can’t be attached to anyone, and no one risks the shame of failure. The word “perfectionist” crops up a lot in this context. Apparently failure to start falls in a different category, and has totally different feelings attached to it, compared to failure to complete.

It’s easy to get drawn into the trap of analysing the causes, and being endlessly fascinated by the elaborate self-deception and mind games. That certainly IS procrastination. But how can you move from decision to action? Here’s a straw man plan – I’d welcome comments.

  1. Don’t leave a gap. Act immediately, without second guessing yourself.
  2. If you can’t act immediately (and, be honest, you probably can) set a date and a definite, practical first step that leaves a mark in the world.
  3. Use “If …..then…….” thinking to leave less time for rumination
  4. If you’re still not doing anything, check who made the decision. Was it really you, or was it one of those should/ought/must things that don’t really belong to you?
  5. Get outside of your own head, get a coach to help you.

Explanation: Why were there still three frogs? The frog who decided, never actually jumped.


I’m one of the pioneer service providers for Google Helpouts, giving 30 minute coaching sessions to walk up clients.


Google Helpouts


This is the logo for Google’s new video-based service. He’s waving, not drowning.

Being a Helpouts dude has  been a combination of great satisfaction and niggling frustration.

 “I make sure they come away with at least one practical step they can take to solve their issue”

On the plus side,  it’s been brilliant with the guys that made the time to navigate the new service. Establishing rapport over a video link isn’t too difficult, even though the clients are from all over the world. I’ve learnt to be even crisper than I normally am, and I make sure people come away with at least one step they can take towards solving their time management problem. I like the discipline of the half hour slot, it really concentrates the mind. The trickiest part is figuring out if the customer wants to just hangout (it’s all based on Google Hangouts technology) and get a bit of free advice, or if it’s a really pressing problem that they need fixing NOW. If it’s one of those, I can’t over-complicate things. Diagnosis and cure have to be pretty rapid, especially if they don’t intend having a second session. We normally think of coaching as a process. Not as long as therapy, but usually more than one half hour slot.

The feedback has been embarrassingly (for a Brit) excellent, and I’m hoping to get repeat business as a result, which is the whole point of me doing this.

On the sucky side……

“My head space becomes like a hotel room. I have to remake it so the next guest believes they’re the first occupant.”

We have just finished the first week, and the sessions have all been free, just so we can all try it out and see how it works. But there have been about 50% no shows. I guess this is because there’s no cost for non-appearance, just my time. I’m now charging a nominal fee, and I hope that will make people show up. The worst part for me, though, is getting ready for the next client. I’m half expecting them not to turn up, but being in a state of readiness if they do. My head space becomes like a hotel room. I have to remake it (in 60 seconds) so the next guest believes they’re the first occupant.

Speed coaching – for people who don’t have time. It could catch on.

Why not try it out? You need a computer, a video camera, some free software and 30 minutes