Make your outcomes visible

‘Are you outcomes-driven or are you inputs-driven?’ 

– This is a question I often pose during my productivity presentations and workshops. 

By outcomes-driven, I mean do you let the bigger picture drive how you spend your time? The significant work, the work that makes the most difference over the long term.  By inputs-driven, I mean do you let the immediate drive how you spend your time? The stuff that’s just turned up in your inbox, interruptions, “drive-by” meetings. 

Unfortunately, the reality is that way too often, much of our precious time is driven by our inputs – they’re noisier, and more in your face. 

Monthly planning is a sure-fire way to achieve greater balance between being inputs- and outcomes-driven.  At the start of every month, think about and record your ‘Top 10’ – the significant, meaningful pieces of work that require your time and attention, the biggest priorities for the month ahead. 

When I invite participants to do this during workshops, I often find people struggle to come up with something even close to 10. 

I am positive the outcomes would exist somewhere, since most businesses engage in setting goals and objectives each year.  But perhaps they are buried in a document or plan that’s gathering dust somewhere; perhaps they exist in your head only.  This lack of visibility of the most important work often results in people being driven by their inputs instead – living in the inbox; reacting way too quickly to urgency; being very, very busy, but not necessarily as effective as you could or need to be

Stopping at least once a month to connect with your outcomes helps you to stay focused on the right work, and to prioritise how you spend your time each week. Making your outcomes visible and tangible by thinking about them and getting them out of your head, or the pile they are buried in, will help you to connect with them more frequently.

How connected are you with your outcomes?           

Busy: A story we tell ourselves

Two executives bump into each other in a lift. One asks the other how she is going. She replies “Busy”. It is almost an instinctive answer that we give when asked the question. But we are all busy. I reckon that busy is the story we tell ourselves when we have not prioritised our time effectively.

Henry David Thoreau once said “It is not enough to be busy; so are ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” 

If you are always so busy that it becomes the badge of honour that you display when asked how you are, maybe you have let too much low value work into your schedule, or failed to prioritise what you have on your plate effectively. Now I can hear some of you say “But we have no other option – this all needs to get done and I am expected to do it”. I hear you, but respectfully suggest that you always have options. You just need to get creative and go beyond your initial reaction of OK, I will do it.

Here are some thought starters:

  1. Say no more often. It is a small but powerful word
  2. Push back on urgent deadlines. They are rarely as urgent as people make out
  3. Plan your meetings and priorities for the week ahead, and make them both visible in your schedule
  4. Be clear about your most important priorities for the month ahead, and fight for the time to work on those things
  5. See workload negotiation as a positive and necessary skill. I bet your line manager is good at it!
  6. Delegate more. And remember, you don’t have to be the boss to delegate to others
  7. Negotiate how much time you will spend on activities. For instance, agree to attend 15 minutes of a meeting to deliver your action, rather than attend the whole meeting
  8. Don’t look at gaps in your schedule as ‘free time’. See these gaps as time to get your priorities done, and protect them well
  9. Be ruthless in controlling your schedule. If you don’t, they will

Change your mindset and automatic response. Next time you are asked how you are, don’t just say ‘busy’ – say ‘productive’

Which actions can you take today to reduce your “busyness”?

The Holy Trinity of the Inbox

In a recent coaching session with a senior client, I had to give the executive some brutal and honest feedback. He had come to me with a specific problem. My Inbox is overwhelming me, he said. So, we worked on some strategies to get his 8,000 odd emails down to zero.

In our second session, he presented a very positive spin on his progress, and said he was feeling a lot better about his email. He had reduced his Inbox from 8,000 emails to just over 3,000. He was thrilled. I was disappointed. My belief is that he had made himself feel good about his progress by clearing some of the low hanging fruit in his Inbox. Deleting rubbish and filing the obvious. This made him feel like a good student, and that he was taking action as a result of our coaching sessions.

The truth was he was still a slave to his Inbox, was still trying to manage his priorities in a reactive way. He was not achieving the Holy Trinity of the Inbox – Clarity, Focus and Control

The reason I bang on about Inbox Zero so much is that I know that people who achieve it on a regular basis experience the following:

  • Greater clarity about what deserves their attention and what does not, because having reduced the noise, they can see the forest for the trees;
  • Increased focus on the important work, because they are consolidating their email-driven priorities into one task system alongside their other priorities;
  • A high level of control over how they spend their time, as they are proactively scheduling their work in a time-based action system, and therefore managing their time.

With my coaching client, when he measured his progress against the Holy Trinity, he came up short. Although he had cleared many emails from his Inbox, that was just the backlog. The real issues still remained. He had no clarity because his Inbox was still way too cluttered and overwhelming. He had no focus because his strategy for managing email actions was still mainly to leave them as unread in his Inbox. And he had no control as things kept slipping through the cracks or became urgent before he got to them.

Although Inbox Zero may feel like a chore and a constraint, it is actually easy and liberating once you put the right system in place, and adopt the right mindset.

How is your Inbox going? Are you achieving the Holy Trinity?

5 Ways to Remember What You Need to Do

Do you recall the trick our Grandparents used when they needed to remember something? They would tie a string around their finger. Then, when they noticed it, they would remember the thing they needed to do. Unfortunately, for this strategy to work today we would need a very large reel of string and a hundred fingers!

We have so much to remember every day, and so many things clammering for our attention. It is not surprising that some of these just slip through the cracks, or become urgent before we get to them. I believe that this is leading to increased reactivity and stress for many workers. It also means that we are less likely to have time to proactively work on the meaningful work that really makes a difference.

When it comes to capturing our activities, we often just leave the work in a pile (your Inbox is a good example) or capture it on our ‘To Do list’. When you only have a few things to do, these strategies work. Just like the string on our Grandpa’s finger. But when you have multiple competing priorities on top of a busy meeting workload and a steady flow of incoming emails, you need more robust strategies that help you to focus.

Electronic tools like MS Outlook, Lotus Notes and Google Calendar allow us to capture actions in a number of ways. These powerful scheduling tools have built-in functions designed to schedule both time-specific activities and more discretionary activities. We need to choose the right tool for the job depending on the activity, it’s deadline, and it’s importance.

Here are five ways that you can capture work using these tools so that you get the right work done at the right time:

Consideration List: Sometimes you will think of things that you should do at some stage, or you would do if you ever had time, but they are not a priority for now, this week or even this month. They are worth capturing on a ‘Consideration List’. This list should be reviewed on a weekly basis to decide if anything is worth scheduling time for this week.

Scheduled Tasks: Lots of work that comes your way needs to be done in the short to medium term, but has a loose deadline. It is worth scheduling these actions into a date-based task list. Many electronic calendar systems allow you to schedule tasks for specific days. These tasks can be scheduled roughly over your week. This helps you spread your workload and ensure that your priorities are visible and don’t slip through the cracks.

Date-Specific Tasks: Some actions need to be done on a specific day. Commitments you have made, work that is time-sensitive, critical priorities for that day. These can also be scheduled in a date-based task system, but should be highlighted in some way so that they stand out from the non-critical tasks for the day. Be highly selective with these, as less is more in this case.

Blocked-Out Task Time: Electronic tasks are generally the best way of managing task workload, as these activities are usually discretionary and need a certain amount of flexibility as your priorities change. But sometimes, a task should be locked into your calendar as blocked out time. This works best for those bigger, more complex concentration tasks. Blocking it out in your calendar will protect your time and reduce procrastination.

Meeting & Appointments: Probably the most time-specific activity you will schedule is a meeting. Meetings are very specific when it comes to when they need to be done as other people are involved. We need to choose an exact time and schedule it to ensure we all turn up at the same time. These of course, should be scheduled in your calendar.

As you see, there is a continuum of action tools, ranging from very loose to very tight. They work together, allowing you to capture and schedule a range of activities that will help you to work in a focused but flexible way.

Or, you can just buy some string and tie it around your finger.…

The power of a weekly plan

If you are a busy executive, you probably spend some time planning the week ahead. Most of us have a Friday or Sunday ritual that helps us get our head around what the week in front of us has in store. Unfortunately, because we are so busy, most of us don’t spend enough time on our weekly plan. There is an irony here, as this is exactly the reason we should stop and spend time planning – because we are so busy!

I have worked with several executives recently helping both themselves and their EA to design a powerful weekly plan. At the senior level, if there was one lever that I could use to boost productivity, it would be a solid weekly planning process shared by both an executive and their EA, or indeed their team. But it needs to go beyond the one-dimensional planning that they are used to.

Weekly planning serves several functions. It firstly gets you up to date. It is a time to review anything that is outstanding or incomplete, and make decisions on how to move these things forward. Secondly, it is a chance to get organised for the week ahead, and ensure that your time and attention is well spent on the right activities.

Thirdly, it should allow you to look ahead and anticipate what is coming down the track at you. Lastly, and most importantly, it provides time to reflect on the bigger picture and plan time for the important activities that are going to make a real difference.

So, if you want to reduce your stress levels, increase your focus and get set for a truly productive week, try a 4 dimensional planning process:

  1. Look back at last week and get up to date
  2. Look forward to next week and get organised
  3. Look ahead several weeks and anticipate
  4. Look up at the big picture and make sure you are working on the right stuff



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