No More Pretzels!

Let me begin with a health warning: Be careful as you watch the video below. It will give you a sympathy backache. That said, it’s worth watching it to see what a naturally gifted human pretzel can do.

Now think about how you might perform as a human pretzel.  No matter how much physical flexibility you may have, chances are that you cannot come close to the standards that Victoria Jacoby attains in the video.

Actually, let me rephrase that. Chances are that you cannot come close to her ability to contort her body, but I’m willing to bet that you far exceed her accomplishments when it comes to contorting yourself and your technology to accomplish everything you need to do everyday.

A classic case in point is email. Its ubiquity is a testament to its perceived usefulness. However, I’d suggest that we have been pushing its usefulness beyond the boundaries of safety and sanity.

So what are smart and safe uses of email? Craig Jarrow of Time Management Ninja suggests the following:

  1. Non-urgent communication
  2. Follow-up
  3. Praise
  4. Timeshifting
  5. Filtering
  6. One-t0-many communications
  7. Sending documents/pictures
  8. Mobility

If those are the good uses, what are the bad uses? In 2007 Dave Pollard outlined the bad use cases in When NOT to Use Email:

  1. To communicate bad news, complaints or criticism
  2.  When you are seeking information that is not simple and straight-forward
  3. When you are seeking approval on something that is involved or controversial
  4. When you are sending a few people complicated instructions
  5. When you are asking for comments on a long document
  6. To request information from a group on a recurring basis
  7. To convey instructions to a large number of people
  8. To achieve consensus
  9. To explore a subject or idea
  10. To send news, interesting documents, links, policies, directory updates and other “FYI” stuff.

For each of these cases, Dave Pollard provides what he considers to be the better way of communicating. (You can find a concise summary of the alternatives in his post, Getting Rid of Email.) In addition, he has created a detailed decision tree you can use to determine what mode of communication is best in each circumstance.

People are fond of saying that “Lawyers live in email.” A more accurate way of describing this is as follows: lawyers spend their days as human pretzels when it comes to email. They contort themselves and their technology, pushing it to do things it was never meant to do.

And then we get mad when things go wrong?

Perhaps it’s time we shifted from the bad use cases to the better use cases for email. Perhaps it’s time we finally outlawed pretzels — of the human and technological kind.


Happy Year of the Ruminant

Lundy_sheep_(head_detail)East Asians have just celebrated the lunar new year. While all of them use the Chinese character “yang” to name the animal symbol of the year, some translate yang differently. In Chinese, yang could mean goat, sheep or ram. We’re told that it’s likely that the ancient meaning in China was goat. The Vietnamese also translate it as goat. Meanwhile, the Tibetans call this the year of the female wood sheep. (This one was new to me — I’d never heard of wood sheep before.)

While there may be controversy regarding the specific translation of yang, there is no dispute that sheep, goats and rams are all ruminants:

  1. an even-toed ungulate mammal that chews the cud regurgitated from its rumen. The ruminants comprise the cattle, sheep, antelopes, deer, giraffes, and their relatives.
  2. a contemplative person; a person given to meditation.
  1. of or belonging to ruminants.

As I read the definition, I wondered if yang should be the symbol of knowledge management? We KMers are neither even-toed nor ungulate. However, there is a measure of cud chewing and regurgitation that we encourage in the interest of  knowledge sharing and reuse. Even more importantly, we should be contemplative people. As much as we need to be action-oriented, we also provide an enormous service to our organizations by regularly taking a step back to think deeply about what is going on and how it could be better.

A recent working paper published by the Harvard Business School reported that there was markedly increased productivity in organizations that adopted one simple daily practice: at the end of each day employees asked themselves “what worked well today and why did it work so well?” They then took a few minutes to journal their findings. The results were impressive:

The researchers put new employees into groups where people either reflected on their days or didn’t. In the reflection group, employees were given a paper journal and asked to spend 15 minutes at the end of their workdays writing about what went well that day, which they did for 10 days.

The result: The journaling employees had 22.8% higher performance than the control group.


I mentioned this study earlier in the year because it made a big impression while driving home the following points to me:

  1. Although it is sensible to have a to-do list that keeps us on track, we must not get so busy doing that we no longer have a clear understanding of what we do, how we do it and why we do it.
  2. Keeping ourselves oriented towards improvement and innovation requires consistent work. The work of daily reflection helps us to see where innovation is possible and where improvement has been achieved.
  3. Daily accountability is the secret to making each day count and making the next day better.
  4. Even though it may seem counter-intuitive to work less and think more, the ruminant approach ultimately yields more rewarding work and superior results.

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been experimenting with various reflection/journaling approaches to try to find the one that allows me to build on this daily practice. In this brief period I have already seen some remarkable improvement in my productivity.

In this year of the sheep/goat/ram, take a leaf from their book and spend a bit more time chewing the cud. And, once you’ve done that, write down the results of your reflection. As you reflect and write, you will find yourself incorporating your learning into your daily work. According to the HBS study, this will improve your processes and productivity. That’s not a bad outcome for 15 brief minutes of reflection and writing each day.

May you have a wonderfully happy AND productive year of the ruminant!


[Photo Credit: Wikipedia]




Happy and Productive New Year!

NYEBall2As we were heading to a festive New Year’s Eve dinner, our cab driver asked (tongue in cheek) whether we wanted to go to Times Square.  Our negative response was so emphatic that he had to laugh. Now don’t get me wrong. I understand that for some folks their idea of a good time is to spend hours in the freezing cold just so they can watch something drop. I hope they enjoyed every minute of it. But don’t expect me to be there shivering in the cold next to them. Instead, we had a low-key (and considerably warmer) celebration. Over the course of the evening, we took a few minutes to remember the good things that happened in 2014. While no year is unalloyed joy, 2014 was a pretty good year for our family. And we are profoundly grateful.

From a professional perspective, 2014 was a stellar year for me. Among the highlights:

  • I published Optimizing Law Firm Support Functions
  • I grew my consulting and facilitating practice in revenue and diversity of clients
  • I gave more presentations than I have ever given in any other year
  • I upgraded this blog

So why this recital of good things? It’s good science. Let me explain.

A Harvard Business School working paper,”Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance,”  documents research that shows a marked improvement in productivity when you step away from your work to reflect on your progress. Drake Baer reports that the researchers tested their theories in the field with employees of Wipro in the following way:

The researchers put new employees into groups where people either reflected on their days or didn’t. In the reflection group, employees were given a paper journal and asked to spend 15 minutes at the end of their workdays writing about what went well that day, which they did for 10 days.

The result: The journaling employees had 22.8% higher performance than the control group.  [emphasis added]

Why does this work? According to HBS professor Francesca Gino:

When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy. They feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing and what they learn.

So what does this mean for me? In 2015 I’m going to take the time to reflect more regularly (hopefully daily) on what’s working and why. Then I will try to take those lessons learned and apply them to the following day. This should create an upward spiral of learning and productivity.

And what about you? I hope you’ll make the commitment to greater productivity by taking a few minutes away from your To Do list in order to make the time for daily self-reflection.

Have a happy AND productive 2015!


[For the official livestream, see]

[Photo Credit: Countdown Entertainment LLC]


Find Your Focus

Focus New Year, new beginnings.

At this point in the calendar, the blogosphere is full of lots of advice for those of us who welcome the opportunity of a new beginning.  Since I’d like to avoid here one of the besetting sins of bloggers (i.e., hypocrisy), I’m going to restrict myself to sharing advice that I’m willing to take myself in 2012:

  1. Find Your Focus. When your attention and energies are scattered in too many directions, it’s impossible to get much if anything done.  When you have multiple projects, it can be hard to determine priorities and allocate resources.  In 2012, be kind to yourself and decide what project (or small number of projects) will be your primary focus for the year.  What’s really worth doing? What completed project would you be glad to showcase at year-end as an example of work well done? Once you’ve identified the project, throw all your concentrated energy into it and see how quickly the results mount.
  2. Plan to be Flexible. The beauty of a well-considered plan is that it helps you answer the daily question of how to spend your time and resources.  That sense of direction is freeing and allows you to just get on with achieving the success for which you’ve planned.  However, very few of us have the luxury of seeing everything go according to plan.  In fact, life often has a way of moving us off course. Sometimes there are bumps in the road, sometimes we find ourselves in a complete snafu.  And sometimes these interruptions are really rich opportunities in deep disguise. All of this is not an argument against planning.  In fact, the value of planning may well be more in the analytical clarity it brings, the contingencies is uncovers and the level of preparedness it inspires.  Eisenhower is famous for saying that “Plans are nothing; planning everything.” So go ahead and plan, but don’t let your plan blind you to life’s realities and opportunities.
  3. Celebrate Progress. Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer Kramer recommend that you Start the New Year with Progress.  By this they mean that “fostering progress in meaningful work is the most important way to keep people highly engaged at work — even if that progress is a `small win.'” Amabile and Kramer have several suggestions for keeping progress front and center:  keep a sharp eye out for progress, communicate it broadly and celebrate it widely.  Don’t let the press of business push people to the next task without recognizing work well done.  It you don’t pause and recognize accomplishment, you run the risk of having members of your team feel as if they are constantly slogging without achieving any meaningful results.  That feeling can destroy engagement and motivation all too quickly. As you focus on progress, be sure to explain why the work is important.  This is not about handing out meaningless gold stars.  It’s about keeping people engaged in work that matters.
  4. Be Kinder. Aldous Huxley is quoted as saying, “It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘Try to be a little kinder.” I have neither his experience nor his wisdom, but this strikes me as good advice — especially in a time of uncertainty when too many are struggling with anxiety. Kindness can help us over the rough patches and sets the tone for how we want to work with our colleagues.

There you have it in a nutshell:  wise advice that, if followed, should result in a highly productive and more fulfilling year.  Now we just need to stay focused.

Happy New Year!

[Photo Credit: ihtatho]








December’s Race to the Finish Line

Calendar We’ve got one month left until the end of the year, one month to close the books on 2011. If you’re like me, you’ve got more on your To Do list than can possibly be done before year end. How does this happen?  Most likely it’s because that To Do list does not adequately take account of the dip in productivity levels that inevitably occurs around the holiday season. Unless you are channeling Ebenezer Scrooge, it’s really hard to work all the time when others are enjoying a little holiday cheer.  Further, it’s hard to push your colleagues to work at an unremitting pace when they too want to enjoy a little holiday cheer. Finally, how do you get everything done before December 31 when the members of your team have been working hard all year and now are fatigued?

Here are some strategies to help you cope during the year-end push:

  1. Take a hard look at the calendar. In December, you cannot count on having 20 full working days. There are official holidays when people expect to be away from the office. Then there are scheduled vacation days. And, of course, there are the partial days when an otherwise normal working day is interrupted by office parties, school events, last minute shopping and planning for upcoming celebrations. According to a study conducted by i4cp in 2008, 62% of respondents said that productivity dropped in their organizations during the holiday season. In other words, it can be very difficult to find enough days for focused work in December. If you’re being realistic, what will this do to your ability to meet your year-end deadlines?
  2. Take a hard look at your project list. When you set your goals in January, December seemed far away and you probably had a rosy view of how much you would be able to accomplish in 12 months. Now you are down to that final challenging month.  Unless your project has proceeded without a hitch, you are undoubtedly at this point considering whether it is necessary to cut the scope of your project.  As painful as this is, it may be the only way to keep your sanity and your team intact. Professional project managers will tell you that it is extremely challenging to achieve high quality, low cost and short time frames on a project.  In fact, according to the project triangle, you can optimize only two of these goals so you’ll have to decide what’s most important: good, fast or cheap.  In the context of your 2011 project goals, will you have to cut scope or increase costs in order to meet your time commitments?
  3. Take a hard look at your team. If your organization is like so many others, you’ve been trying to do more with less for too long.  In fact, you may be understaffed and overworked.  Add to that the ambient stress of a challenging economic environment and you may well have a team of people who are mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. How do you re-energize them sufficiently to achieve year-end goals? First, if the exhaustion is due to overwork, consider providing some strategically-timed rest and recreation.  After all, even machines need downtime for maintenance. If your team members don’t understand the reason for their work or don’t believe that what they are doing is important, this can result in mental exhaustion.  In this case, you will have to improve your priority setting, as well as your communication about the purpose of your team’s work. People will not work above and beyond the call of duty if they have doubts about their mission. Is their mission for December important enough to inspire and energize them?

It’s a race to the finish. Unless you approach that race tactically, you could end up crippling your team and falling short of your goals. And, to compound the pain, you may miss out on the joy and hopefulness of the season.  Why risk it?

[Photo Credit: Angela Mabray]


Are You a Force Multiplier?

multiply On most days, my To Do List seems longer than the Nile River.  It contains everything from the quotidien (remember the milk!) to the critical — tasks that trigger serious consequences. On days when it seems like I add two tasks for every one I complete, it can be tempting to focus on the noisiest ones.  What are noisy tasks?  The tasks with the most pressing deadline or the most vocal sponsor. And so it goes, racing from one due date to another, with barely enough time for a breath much less a moment to consider the true results of what I am doing.

Writers on productivity, time management and strategy have told us for a long time that we should focus on the IMPORTANT not the URGENT. That’s excellent advice.  However, I’ve recently started thinking about another lens through which to view and prioritize tasks:  Will the completion of the task (or project) act as a force multiplier?

To understand this better, let’s spend a moment on force multiplication.  The military calls a factor a “force multiplier” when that factor enables a force to work much more effectively.  The example in Wikipedia relates to GPS:  “if a certain technology like GPS enables a force to accomplish the same results of a force five times as large but without GPS, then the multiplier is 5.”  Interestingly, while technology can be an enormous advantage, force multipliers are not limited to technology.  Some of the force multipliers listed in that Wikipedia article have nothing at all to do with technology:

Now come back to that growing To Do List and take another look at those tasks.  How many of them are basically chores — things that simply need to get done in order to get people off your back or to move things forward (perhaps towards an unclear goal)? How many of them are (or are part of) force multipliers — things that will allow you or your organization to work in a dramatically more effective fashion?  Viewed through this lens, the chores seem much less relevant, akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, while the force multipliers are clearly much more deserving of your time and attention.

The challenge of course is that the noisy tasks grab your attention because others insist on it.  They want something when they want it because they want it.  They may not have a single strategic thought in their head, but they are demanding and persistent.  So how do you limit the encroachment of purveyors of noisy tasks?  One answer is to limit the amount of time available for chores.  To do this credibly, you’ll need to know where you and your activities fit within the strategy of your organization.  If the task does not advance strategy, don’t do it.  Or decide upfront to allow a fixed percentage of your time for chores that may be of minimal use to you, but may be important to keep the people around you happy.  Another approach is to get a better understanding of the task and its context.  If your job is to copy documents, one page looks much like another.  However, it matters if the document you are copying contains the cafeteria menu or the firm’s emergency response guidelines. Finally, you need to educate the folks around you.  With your subordinates, do your decision making aloud — explaining how you determine if a particular task or project is a force multiplier. With your superiors, ask them to help you understand better the force multiplication attributes they see in the tasks they assign.  (This will either provide you with more useful contextual information or smoke out a chore that is masquerading as an important task.) Finally, with the others, engage them in conversation. When you cannot see your way clear to handle their chore, explain your reasoning.  They won’t always be happy about it, but they will start learning when to call on you and when to dump their requests on someone else.

Of course, the concept of force multiplication goes far beyond your To Do List.  Do your projects have a force multiplying effect on your department?  Does your department have a force multiplying effect on your firm? These are important questions for everyone, but especially for people engaged in the sometime amorphous field of knowledge management. Sure, most of what we do helps.  But do we make a dramatic difference?  If not, why not?

[Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds]



Resisting Temptation

Temptation“I can resist everything but temptation,” Oscar Wilde once said.  Nowadays, if you look around most offices, you’ll discover lots of folks who appear to agree with Oscar Wilde.  They spend time during regular business hours on Facebook, checking personal email, indulging in online shopping, or just surfing the web.  In fact, it can seem as if the only temptation they are able to resist is the temptation to get some work done.

How bad is it?  According to a recent report on current research at Harvard Business School, the situation is quite serious: “A number of studies have suggested that US workers waste between one and two hours a day web surfing, costing their companies billions in lost productivity.”

In the face of these significant threats to productivity, some employers have taken the step of banning private internet use at the office.  While this may seem like an entirely logical response, Marco Piovesan, a Harvard Business School research fellow, thinks it may have serious drawbacks:

By banning web surfing, employers are essentially asking their workers to resist temptation until they can go home and surf on their own time. The rub: studies show that people asked to resist temptation in anticipation of reward become less productive and make more mistakes in their current tasks.

In the tests Piovesan and his colleagues conducted, they asked test subjects to complete specific simple tasks while fighting the temptation to watch a funny video.  The tests found that the people facing temptation “were more apt to make mistakes and were less productive overall” when compared to a control group.  In a workplace that demands high accuracy, this tendency could cause real trouble.  In any business that depends on high productivity, this could mean disappointing financial results.

Piovesan suggests that the better approach is to let employees know that they can have regular breaks in which to take care of personal business online.  He views this as a means to relieve the pressure and reduce the distracting and exhausting effects of having to exert self-control over long periods of time. This is consistent with the theory that “when we resist temptation we use energy to control ourselves-and then this energy is not available for subsequent tasks.”

Alternatively, we could let Oscar Wilde have the last word: “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.”

[Photo Credit: Joel Montes]


Extreme Productivity

clocksEach of us is given 24 hours in a day, but some of us manage to accomplish a great deal more than others.


This is the key question behind a recent series of conversations between Bob Pozen and Justin Fox, the editorial director of the Harvard Business Review Group. For those of you who many not know him, Bob Pozen is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and the chairman emeritus of MFS Investment Management. (When Pozen was executive chairman, MFS managed over $200 billion in mutual funds and pension assets.) In anticipation of Pozen’s upcoming article on productivity in the May issue of the Harvard Business Review, I listened to a podcast in which Pozen provides some Productivity Secrets of a Very Busy Man:

  • Focus on Results, Not on Time Spent. In his post, It’s Not the Time You Spend but the Result You Produce, he argues with the eloquence and passion that only a recovering lawyer can have that focusing on the time logged puts the incentives in the wrong place and inevitably has a deleterious effect on your personal life. To answer the concerns of lawyers who feel bound by the billable hour, he tells the following story:
    • After the SEC, I worked for a law firm in Washington, D.C., for six years. While many lawyers stayed at the office late, I soon realized that charging clients by the number of hours worked did not make sense for me. In my view, it’s not the amount of time you spend on helping a client; it’s the result you’ve produced for your client. After a few years, my clients knew that I was efficient, so I ran an experiment. I sent them a letter explaining that in the future I would be billing them for double the time I actually spent on their work — unless they objected. Not one client objected.
  • Know Your Comparative Advantage. While most people think about comparative advantage in terms of where they excel in relation to others, Pozen believes that each person should focus on those things that only they can do for their organizations.  Put another way, what is their highest and greatest good from the perspective of their organization? (See What Not to Spend Your Time On.)
  • Think First, Read or Write Second. Pozen believes that before you begin reading nonfiction, determine what it is you want to get out of your reading.  Then, read to meet that goal. (See How to Be a Speed Reader.) Similarly, before you begin writing, create an outline that shows your intended conclusion and the path there. Of course, if your research send you in a different direction, you have to be prepared to adapt your outline accordingly. The key point is to have a sense of direction; don’t just stumble about in the dark. In case you’re skeptical about his approach, you should know that he produced his most recent book in nine months.  It was 457 pages long and received good reviews. (See How to Be a Speed Writer.)
  • Prepare Your Plan, But Be Ready to Change It. Pozen is a great advocate of spending a little time each evening to preview the next day’s calendar and plan what needs to be accomplished. He also uses this time to establish his priorities for the day. Here’s how he describes his approach:
    • Every night I look over a schedule of exactly what I’m going to do the next day. I might have a call at 8:30 a.m., a meeting at 9 a.m., and so on. For each event on my schedule, I’ll write down a few words about what I want to get accomplished. Then, on the same page as the schedule, I’ll compose a list of tasks that I want to get done that day, in order of priority. As the day goes by, I check off the tasks that are completed. At the end of the day, I review the ones not done and decide when I should do them in the future — or to delete them if circumstances have changed.
  • Nap! Pozen is a realist when it comes to circadian rhythm and understands that not everyone can work at peak productivity all afternoon.  Therefore, he is an advocate of the 30-minute power nap. It’s the pause that refreshes — and it makes the rest of his highly accomplished life possible.

Before you leave the office tonight, make a list of the key things that need you need to accomplish on Monday.  Then go off and enjoy your weekend!


If you’d like to read more from Bob Pozen, here is a link to Pozen on Personal Productivity, which lists his other blog posts on productivity.

[Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds]


The Secret to Productivity? Money and Smiles

My To Do List: The Functional Tattoo

Optimal productivity is something we may strive for, but too few of us attain.  Consequently, many feel buried alive under the weight of an unruly, constantly growing To Do list.  The technovores among us may attempt to alleviate the pain by using the latest software that claims to be able to organize your life.  And yet, reality often falls short of these promises.

Part of the problem is that we’ve forgotten that productivity doesn’t necessarily mean getting everything done.  Rather, productivity means getting the right things done right. Because of this memory lapse, we may find ourselves racing to stay ahead of the urgent or we may numb ourselves by dealing with those mindless tasks that seem easy to complete, but don’t have much lasting value.  The net result is diminished productivity and a creeping sense of impending disaster.

Into this sorry mess steps Mike Michalowicz with a recommendation that we adopt a back-to-basics approach to productivity:

  • Take a legal pad and draw two columns — one labeled Task and the other labeled Type.
  • Handwrite in the first column all the tasks you think you have to accomplish.
  • In the second column draw a dollar sign ($) next to every task that is reasonably likely to generate revenue for you in the next 30 days. Then, draw a smiley face next to every task that is reasonably likely to make your clients happy.
  • Systematically work through the items marked with $ or .
  • Ignore the rest — unless you have a ton of extra time on your hands.

That’s it.

Unless you’re an emergency room doctor, ignore the urgent and simply focus on what Michalowicz says is most important — money and smiles.  As far as Michalowicz is concerned, this is the most effective productivity strategy he has ever followed.  Here’s how he sums it up: “If cash is flowing and the customers are happy, who cares if I never get around to the other tasks?”

[Photo Credit: Rob and Stephanie Levy]


Is Multitasking Ethical?

Wired Man
Wired Man

Whether we’re compelled by an urge for productivity or a chronic lack of time, many of us spend our days multitasking. Even though there are serious questions about the true efficacy of multitasking, many feel that we simply have no choice.  While some say this is just the new reality in today’s world, others point to research that indicates that human multitasking is a myth:

As technology allows people to do more tasks at the same time, the myth that we can multitask has never been stronger. But researchers say it’s still a myth — and they have the data to prove it.

Humans, they say, don’t do lots of things simultaneously. Instead, we switch our attention from task to task extremely quickly.

This suggests that when we try to multitask, we’re really just doing multiple things serially with less than full focus.  Depending on the circumstances, that can be delightful (e.g., listening to music while doing household chores), dumb (e.g., having a serious “relationship” conversation while watching a sporting event on TV) or even dangerous (e.g., texting while driving).  But have you considered the ethics of multitasking?

All lawyers in active practice in New York are required to attend ongoing education sessions in order to earn a specified number of continuing legal education (CLE) credits and, thereby, remain in good standing.  In a recent post about “Blackberryheads” on the Legal Ethics Forum, renowned legal ethicist Stephen Gillers challenged lawyers by asking,

Is it ethical to claim CLE credit for a talk on legal ethics if you’ve spent nearly the entire time a captive of your Blackberry? Or laptop? Or editing a brief? Or reading a book on your iPad?

Even if you’re not a lawyer, is it ethical to give only partial attention to the task at hand?


Additional Reading:

[Photo Credit: Mike Licht]