time management

Two Ways to be a Better Supervisor

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If you want to be a better supervisor, you need to know what employees are looking for when they consider working for you.

In the best interviews, the questions and evaluations take place on both sides of the table. They’re interviewing you as much as you’re interviewing them.

There’s usually a lot of pressure to fill an empty position. You’re focused on your needs: what you need to accomplish, how this person will perform, and how they’ll work in your culture and with your team.

Meanwhile, your staff is probably anxious to fill a gap and get some of the extra work they’re doing back where it belongs and off their overloaded plates.

That’s a lot of pressure to find someone and plug the hole.

But a good fit is critical, especially if you don’t want to be recruiting again in a few months.

If you ask candidates what makes a good supervisor, two key responses come up consistently, regardless of the particular position or the level of responsibility: 1. Keep your door open and 2. Give me guidance, then turn me loose.

It’s how we all want to be treated.

1. Keep your door open.

We want to know that someone’s there who is vested in our success. Supervisors communicate that by being available, answering questions, helping us see the pitfalls and hurdles before we stumble, and being our advocates and mentors. You can’t do this from behind a closed door.

2. Give me guidance, then turn me loose.

We crave autonomy, but we hate to find out we’ve been wasting our time heading down the wrong path. Don’t micromanage me, but don’t let me get so far off track that we’re in crisis mode cleaning up something that could have been prevented with decent communication. Hence the open door.

Simple, right?

Easy to do? Yes, when we’re relaxed, open, and not rushed. But the reality of our work world today is that we have to deliberately carve out the time (and intention) to meet these two basic needs.

If we’re overloaded, rushing from meeting to meeting, or locked in our office trying to manage an overload of deadlines and responsibilities, it’s hard to open the door. It can also feel hard not to micro-manage (or ignore) our colleagues when the stress is getting to us.

With January just around the corner, maybe this is a good time to set some new year’s goals for your supervisors and yourself.

Just these two actions can go a long way to keeping solid relationships with the people in your work life.

What else do you think employees want?
And what do you plan to focus on next year?

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Increase your power this week with the 80/20 rule

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Are you busy?

Silly question.

As the typical work week continues to expand, you probably have more things to do than you can possibly keep track of. Stressed. Frazzled. Overwhelmed. We’ve got it covered.

Last week I heard someone say they wanted to take a time-management class but they didn’t have time because they were so overwhelmed. Not funny.

Short of overhauling our national policies and changing the culture of your workplace or home tomorrow, what can you do to bring some sanity to your week?

Consider this. Your power goes where you send it and for most of us, it goes someplace like this:

Arugh, how did I get another 200 new emails? Voicemail light flashing. Yikes, I almost forgot to set up that meeting and I have a report due tomorrow. Performance reviews? Again? Didn’t we just do those. And that problem from last week is back again, why don’t those people know how to get it right. Maybe I’ll get started on that memo, oops! Time for a staff meeting already?

That’s the “I’m so busy” trap. For most of us, we don’t even realize we’re falling into it, after all, aren’t the busy, overwhelmed and frazzled the important ones? But this trap saps your power. Here’s a way to jump-start your thinking about your power, where it goes, and how to use it for maximum effect this week.

Most of the things buzzing around our mental to-do list can be broken into 80% low-impact and 20% high-impact.

Low impact: answering a simple email, reviewing a web-page for accuracy, filing your inbox, running an errand, responding to a meeting invitation, setting up a meeting.

High impact: taking that time-management course, thinking through a long-term project by breaking out the pieces and identifying resources for each of them, writing a critical report in time for others to review it well.

Usually, the attention we give to the 80% is a buzz of distraction, gnawing at our focus and leaving us feeilng like we don’t have enough time.

The 20% is what we squeeze in, or where we take shortcuts because we haven’t left ourselves enough room to complete them well. Who hasn’t dashed off something important at the last minute, promising themselves I’ll do better next time?

It’s time to power up and make the 80/20 shift – clear your calendar for next week, leaving only the most essential things.

Part one. Get a paper and pencil (or whatever note-taking tools suit you) and set your timer for 5 minutes.

  • List your 20% high-impact items
  • Put them on your calendar (use chunks – blocks of time – and ditch things that you really don’t have to do)
  • Devote 80% of your attention to these items

That’s right. 80%.

Part two. Set that timer for 5 more minutes

  • List your 80% items
  • Put a time on your calendar for them (again, chunks of time)
  • Devote 20% of your attention to them this week.

It could look like this:

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Try applying the 80/20 power rule for just one week and see if power changes.

And don’t forget to take lunch.

(Hint: you might want to do your worst task first or delegate something to someone else)

Overwhelmed by Something Big? Try this.

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The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.  – Lao Tzu

We’ve all heard that one before, right? And we know it’s true but, when your journey consists of a thousand tasks, each of which require at least a thousand steps all to be taken immediately, it feels a little too vague.

Some people are natural step-by-step takers. The rest of us could use a little help.

Lately, as the trees begin to bud out and this endless winter seems like it might actually yield to warmth, I’ve found myself reading a lot about time management, habits, and mindfulness. I don’t think it’s a random association of interests, but an attempt to understand how we make sense of this busy, hectic, ever-faster world around us. After this preparation for a sort of spring-cleaning, I’ve decided to tackle the big projects first.

Why the big ones? Because those are the ones that weigh heavily on my mind. I can churn through a check-list but if I know there are long-term tasks out there on the horizon, my sense of unease is not quieted.

Some are big projects at work, some are big projects at home (kitchen cupboards – shudder!) and some are years and years past due (old home movies on Hi8 tapes).

Amid all the good advice, I’ve honed in on two steps that help, and they’re rather simple.

1. Make one list

I’m a compulsive list-maker and have been ever since I got my first day-planner in high school. Unfortunately, this habit has managed to spread itself around my life. Until recently, I tried to keep a work list, a home list, a grocery list, a weekend list, a random list – you name it. The Post-it folks and I were getting a little too cozy. I now have a single list – in one notebook – that has everything in it. There are apps for this, but for me, the act of writing it down is a lot faster than pulling out my phone in the middle of a meeting, creating the list, and then remembering to look at it later.

For you, electronic may be the way to go. For me, paper creates a sense that I’ve got it.

Now that the list is in one place (and yes, I do stick post-it notes in my list-notebook but hey, nobody’s perfect), I am learning to expand the list.

Instead of writing “clean the house” on it, I write “sort all the books” then I write “donate the books in the car” (because that’s where they’ll end up).

This works at the office too. I had a project that required several conversations, multiple written products, and communication by a certain deadline. I wrote each of those steps down on my list, which forced me to do two things:

  • acknowledge all the pieces of work that would be required
  • get a better sense of how long these pieces would take

As an incurable optimist, I tend to think I can probably accomplish things in “two minutes” or “twenty minutes” when they’re more likely to take an hour or two. Focusing on the real demands of a project helps me see the steps in a more realistic way which leads nicely to the next step:

2. Put everything from the list on the calendar

That’s right, everything. With an accurate amount of time.

That doctor’s appointment that I’ve been meaning to schedule for three weeks? Still not done. Why? Because I called once, spent twenty minutes trying to figure out if i was in the new medical records system or not, then I wasn’t and needed to get a referral. Referral? Scheduled and done. But then I just carried around my list that said “make appointment”. Of course, I always had something better/more important/more pressing to do.

Now, I have a time set next week for 20 minutes, when I will make that call. And the number for the office is in the appointment.

This has been working well for projects, broken down into realistic chunks of work, and other tasks at home.

I’ve known people to block “work time” on their calendars, but without committing to what they will spend that time on, they tend to either schedule over that time with meetings or flail about, trying to decide what to do and ultimately feeling like they didn’t use that time well after all.

By getting specific about what I need to do and committing the time to it, I find I am more likely to keep my appointments with my work and to make progress.

What about those little things that really do only take a minute or two?

Schedule a 15 minute slot of your day for “quick tasks” – or whatever you want to call it – and spend that time plugging through your list. (Beware the internet!). This is the same method I’m using to tackle my gargantuan inbox. 15 minutes a day.

The key to making this work is finding the way that fits your personality best.

If you’re a morning person, you may make your list first thing and tackle a few items before leaving the house. You probably won’t make progress if you’re trying to set aside time after everyone’s gone to bed to work on something important.

If you’re an evening person, you may carve out some time later in the day to work without interruption on a long-term project. Getting up at 5a.m. to try something new might not be best for you.

Regardless of your personality, knowing what needs to be done and when you will do it is key.

I’d love to hear from you if you have techniques you’ve used to get out from under big projects – or if you’ve tried these approaches and they didn’t work.

There’s no such thing as free time

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Last week, I left work on Friday and shoved a few things in my bag with my computer. They included information for a memo I needed to write, a publication I’ve been meaning to read for several weeks, an article from a colleague, and several half completed to-do lists that I intended to consolidate. I figured I’d get those done during some of my free time that weekend.

Monday morning, I got to my office and pulled all those things – untouched since Friday – out of my bag.

Why?

Because there’s no such thing as free time.

My weekend is just a full as my work-week, the content is just different.

This led me to think about why I was bringing things home on the weekend in the first place. They all had something in common – they weren’t preventing me from getting the essentials done, but they were all activities I planned to “get to” during the work week when I had a moment of free time. Which meant I didn’t get to them because….there’s no such thing as free time.

If you’re familiar with the Meyers-Briggs test, you’ve heard of the P-J categories. Perceiving vs. Judging. In brief (and forgive me if you’re a MBTI expert who craves greater nuance in this description) Perceivers go with the flow, Judging types tend to organize and stick to their plan. I sit right on the border between these two categories, which gives me a peek into both.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with some amazing J types over the years. Their ability to sit down, think through all their tasks, get them done in order and on time is what keeps complicated projects clocking right along. They’re the reasons we ever accomplish anything on time.

And I’ve loved working with some of my favorite P’s, too. They bring a spark of creativity – what if we tried this? – and when everyone’s in crisis mode, they’re the ones who lighten the load with humor and a helping hand at the last minute.

For a P, all time is free time, waiting to be programmed in the moment. For a J, free time is planned, down to the minute.

I’m using the ends of the spectrum to make a point:

If there’s something you intend to get done, you have to actually make a decision to do it.

Unless something you’d planned falls through, free time won’t just pop up out of nowhere, like an oasis of relaxation waiting for you to kick back and get those long-delayed tasks done. And, when you do get an unplanned moment, will you spend it reading work materials or going for a walk?

The P may decide late in the day, the J may decide three days in advance, but they’ve both decided – that’s when the magic happens.

There are several tricks borrowed from the world of time-management that can help make this happen for you, whether you’re a P, a J, or something in-between.

  1. Use a schedule for everything, including those things you’re going to “get to when there’s time”. This includes returning phone calls, sending an email, that errand to the post-office to mail the package you were going to drop off when you had time.
  2. Decide not to do something. That article you’ve been carrying around for three weeks. Will you really read it? Let’s be honest and get rid of some of the should-do’s that aren’t must-do’s.
  3. Schedule some quality time. Don’t let your to-do list become your life. Use it to manage your time, including the time you spend with family, friends, and on yourself. After all, all work and no play makes….well, you know.
  4. When something falls through, use that moment to do something meaningful with your “free time” – that could be focusing on an important work project earlier than you planned, or it could mean going for a walk and refreshing your thoughts. Either way, having a better handle on how you’re spending your time will help you make the most of it.

When we begin to master our time, we’re not dependent on that elusive prey: free time.

For a related post, with additional resources on time management, click here.

Tired of all those must-do’s? Try asking this question

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Do you recognize this day?

Wake up (snooze button, anyone?), stumble into the shower, throw some breakfast together (if there’s time), hustle everyone else out the door, dash off to work, forget something halfway down the steps, run through your list of things you must-not-forget-today while you drive to work, dash from meeting to meeting, realize you forgot your lunch on the kitchen counter (probably next to a kid’s homework or a library book you’ve been meaning to return for at least a week now), accumulate three new post-it-notes next to the ones left from yesterday, leave feeling like you’re even further behind than you were when you started.

Dinner? After-school activities? Family? Laundry? Dishes? Bills? Answer your sister’s phone call? Bed? Repeat?

That clutter of must-do’s quickly translates into a heaping serving of resentment topped with fatigue sauce and a sleepless cherry on top, doesn’t it?

But you can’t get out of it. Because you must eat, you must work, you must make sure the kids are okay (and they are, really).

Must. Must. Must.

Or must you?

When we feel put-upon by a lot of external obligations, we feel powerless. Our time is not our own. Our decisions are not our own. That perception of our situation is very strong and very difficult to manage at busy times or moments of transition.

That’s when you can ask this question: Must I? Or can I choose?

There are external forces at work in our lives. Yet we usually have more choices than we realize. The problem is that by the time you arrive at this over-stressed point, you don’t feel like you have the chance to stop and ask. You feel like you don’t have a choice.

There are a lot of choices though. Start with some small ones and build up you choosing muscles. Through practice, you can change your perspective from put-upon to making-decisions.

How?

Start small.

A colleague told me he sits in his car for one minute when he leaves the office. He just sits there. He breathes. It’s a minute of reset.

I tend to stay until the last moment, dash out the door, turn the key, pull out, and drive all in a matter of moments.

His way is better. He’s choosing to regain control over that moment and says it makes a clean break between work and home.

That’s a small step with big payoffs.

Pay attention.

How often do you scarf down your lunch giving it hardly a thought? When your child or partner asks what you ate for lunch and you can’t really remember, that’s a sign that you’re not choosing to eat lunch, you’re just letting it happen. (hopefully!)

Take a moment. Eat lunch. Choose to pay attention.

Focus.

Your mind is scrambling along at a million miles, generating anxious to-do’s while you’re supposedly watching your kid’s sports team. You’re surfing the phone, trying to do something that would take you a fraction of the time on a computer, but you’ve got to multi-task and get that last email out.  Really? Or are you choosing to be absorbed in something that might get a few kudos from people who (you hope) notice how dedicated you are?

Your choice.

Manage your time.

Time management isn’t something you’re born with. Some people have a gift, yes. The rest of us learn it.

Too busy to learn?

Your choice.

The bottom line is, when you start seeing your time as something you choose to use, and seeing yourself as an active participant in your life, your ability to choose well goes way up. Your perspective changes.

That’s a great choice.

Want some more information on time management? Check out these resources:

Why you should do your worst task first today

Psychology Today articles on time management

Make your working hours work for you – Entrepreneur article

Manage your energy, not your time – HBR article

Are you ready to take it to the next level?

If you only change one thing in 2015 this should be it

Whether you’re a resolution-maker or not, it’s hard to escape the lists of suggestions for new tasks, goals, and ideas that sprout this time of the year.

Personally, I love resolutions. I have years worth of left-over lists, some kept, some not.

This year, I’m taking a new approach. I’m making just one resolution that I hope will have a positive impact on others: send fewer emails.

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If I had to name one thing I hate right now, it’s my inbox. Crammed to overflowing with conversations I don’t need to be part of, general announcements, and strings of people trying to figure out when to meet and where, I just about want to rip my hair out when I see that dreaded “unread” number creeping up and up and up.

There are gems of important information in there. Nuggets of real work. But it’s like panning for gold. Backbreaking, endless, tedium that occasionally yields a flake or two of sunshine. And I’m pretty sure the good stuff is buried just downstream.

I’ve had enough.

But if you really aren’t ready or able  to get off email, what are your options?

You can find lots of online wisdom if you google “taking back your inbox” and “how to manage email” but they tend to read like instruction manuals for a better gold panning contraption.

I toyed with this idea last year (way back in 2014), but I didn’t make a focused effort. I dabbled, I deleted, I tried to be disciplined. But I still reverted to typing three cryptic words and hitting send when I was in a hurry. Of course, those hurried emails bounced right back at me, asking for clarification, more information, or sparking a series of conversational notes.

This year, I’m getting serious.

My resolution to send fewer emails is based on these goals:

  • Contribute less to the mess.
    • Do I need to say this? Does it offer new, relevant, or helpful information? Or am I contributing to an e-conversation that would be better handled in person?
  • Don’t pass the buck.
    • Am I sending this email as a placeholder? To let someone know I’m on it? Or to send responsibility to someone else just to get a task out of my inbox? Is there a better way to complete it now?
  • Be clear.
    • Am I writing with a sense of purpose and clarity? Am I being complete but not overly wordy? 
  • Pick up the phone
    • Will this email generate questions and additional emails that I could handle with a phone call now? Is there an emotion involved that will come through better on the phone?
  • Walk down the hall.
    • Is this an opportunity to interact, make a connection, complete the task and get moving? 

I’m hoping that this one goal – fewer sent emails – will open up some space for the working and thinking we all crave. That’s where the real gold lies.

Here’s wishing you fewer emails and better communications for 2015.

Are the many messages of perfection preventing you from achieving one thing?

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It happens every year. December comes immediately after Thanksgiving and bam! 

Holidays.

You’d think I’d know this by now. After all, the holiday season apparently begins sometime in early October with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannauka and everything else tossed in a potentially stress-inducing fiesta.

Leading this ever-advancing tide of pressure are the many perfection messages:

Have a hassle-free holiday

Make the perfect holiday meal

Decorations you can do on a dime

In that moment when I realize the year is almost over, I typically react in one of two ways. Sometimes the barrage is a challenge – I’m going to take this season by storm! – and out come the notepads, smartphones, and the determination to micromanage the heck out of the next few weeks.

At other times, it’s all the reason I need to crawl back under the covers and pretend none of it’s happening.

Either way, the idea that there’s some perfect person out there floating through the stress in a cloud of peppermint-scented-calm is enough to make me throw up my hands.

I can’t do a perfect holiday.

I can’t do a perfect work-place, either.

Thinking about seasonal stress got me to thinking about how we tend to see stress as an absolute (stress vs. calm) year-round. This mindset can cause conflict because it focuses us on a given solution (no stress) without letting us consider where our focus belongs.

Those perfection messages reinforce this notion that it’s an all-or-nothing situation. Either you’re a stressed out mess or not. And there are so many opportunities to feel behind or lacking.

Either you’re a stressed-out mess or you’re calm, organized, filing those emails as they pop up, managing your time to the maximum, and networking after hours. Then you’ll set some new year goals and you’ll be on your way. But really, no matter how on-top of things you are, the pendulum swings back and forth because life happens.

 

We are surrounded by the many. Many ways to improve, many ways to succeed. We are told everyone has the potential to be President, run a start-up, make a million (over and over), and be happy. And it’s all supposed to be easy a la “ten simple steps and you can be the leader” or “want to succeed? just do this”

This season, I’m looking for a way to reduce the many mindset and be open to focusing on one area at a time.

For instance, there are three events that all have holiday significance to me and- the calendar gods must be crazy – this year they’re all on the same weekend. I began trying to figure out which one we could do on Friday – Saturday – Sunday – all in the name of holiday spirit. Then a little voice in my head said just pick one.

One is a realistic goal.

With one, I can still do some of the normal things that make a weekend work for me. Like buy milk.

One got me thinking.

When I have a head full of to-do’s, it’s helps to dump them all down on one piece of paper and then choose one place to start.

When my day is overloaded, it helps to pick one think to accomplish that day and do it first.

When I need to have a difficult conversation with someone, it helps to pick one point of focus instead of trying to address all the problems in a single conversation.

One is about focus.

As someone who tends towards the page of goals, I don’t think this will be easy for me, but I’ve experimented in small ways and the Holidays provide another sanity-saving opportunity to experiment with one.

Are you a one or many person? What have you learned and what would you share?

 

Why you might want to do that really embarrassing, terrifying, or otherwise crazy thing you’ve been avoiding.

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This evening, I did something terrifying and embarrassing. It was something I swore I would never do. Especially in public, where people would know. Wasn’t gonna do it. Nope. Not ever.

Then I did.

I sang. Out loud.

I know some of you are thinking “whaaaaa?? What’s the big whooping deal?”

Rewind the tape 30 years (ahem, maybe go back a few more) and you’d see me singing my little heart out about two rows back in the choir. Then, I got some coaching: “Why don’t you just mouth the words, honey?”

I was a pretty obedient kid, so I did. I got the message loud and clear. Until tonight.

If you’re still reading, and Hollywood and the internet have primed you for a late-in-life-rises-to-sing-on-stage ending, I’ll let you know right now that it’s not coming.

But here’s what I did figure out tonight, standing on the cool, grey stones outside, feeling the orange heat of an outdoor fire at my back and the early fall breeze stirring the paper in my hands.

Sometimes, you just have to let that old stuff go. The can’t, not good enough, don’t know how, never should’s. Really, who cares?

Do you even care anymore?

If you want to know how to do something, ask a teacher. We had an excellent instructor talk to us about the mechanics of singing. He reminded us that we all have the machinery, it’s a matter of learning to use it.

That’s a very powerful thought. We can probably each list a number of things we know we’re not good at. But if you’ve never learned how to do something, how can you be expected to do it well? Nobody every took the time to try to teach me to sing. They just told me I couldn’t. And the shame of it is I believed them. For a very long time.

We get second opinions on all kinds of things, we research our endless options on the internet, choosing just the right pair of shoes.

Then an offhand opinion pops up, and we take it as gospel. That makes no sense.

How much time did that tired choir director spend on her comment to me? Probably less than a second. But I’ve considered it truth since then.

Take that list of things you’re not good at and examine it closely. There are probably some things you really can’t do. I’m pretty short – there’s a reason I never made the basketball team. Several, actually, but that’s okay because I don’t really care.

Knowing what you care about is key. It lets you choose.

Once you figure out what you want to do, do it. A lot. We tend to live in the have-it-all-now-you-deserve-it world, but that doesn’t really work well. You have to find your passion then put your heart and soul into it, like this:

(TED talk) BLACK: My journey to yo-yo mastery

Maybe it’s no yo-yo mastery for you, yet once you have an area of focus, you can begin to say no to the distractions. We can’t do it all, or at least we can’t do it all well, in spite of what messages are out there.

One of my least favorite questions is “how do you balance it all?” because of the underlying assumption that we can or even should strive to balance it all. That’s not very humane, nor is it possible, in my opinion. So we have to make choices and when we choose the things we care about, when we build on a foundation of our strengths, we bring our best self forward.

Once you’ve made a choice, make the time.

I’ll be honest, I love to sing and I’ll keep doing it, perhaps to my family’s chagrin, but I’m not going to join a choir or take voice lessons, it’s not at the top of my list. Getting good at the top of the things on my list – some personal, some professional – is where I’ll be spending my time.

People say they can’t find the time to do something.

It’s not a matter of finding it, it’s a matter of making it. Making it yours, for a specific purpose, then respecting that choice enough to keep it.

That’s the hardest part of all, even harder than finding the right note.

A change takes courage.

I am still stunned that I opened my mouth and let the sounds come out. In public. But what shocks me even more is this: Nothing changed.

The world did not stop.

People did not clamp their hands over their ears and run screaming from the patio.

They just sang.

Suddenly, anything is possible.

Some really good singing and further discussion: Claron McFadden: Singing the primal mystery (TED Video)