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]


Does Caution Prevent Productivity?

Be honest. Are you cautious because you really are trying to reach the right decision OR because you’re trying to avoid responsibility?

After my last post, True Productivity, Rees Morrison and I got into an interesting offline chat about whether the “Just do it” camp was wise to throw caution to the wind in order to get something (anything!) done. We agreed that the hard part of this action/caution equation was achieving a balance between the two.  To do this right, you need to develop sufficient judgment so that you can act wisely AND efficiently.

Achieving a balance between action and caution isn’t something everyone does equally well.  For most folks, it takes years of experience, good perspective and lots of common sense.  Unfortunately, these are not taught in every school.  To compound the problem, law schools, law departments and law firms have become so sensitized to the downside of most actions that actually taking a stance or making a decision can feel foolhardy at times.

At moments like these consider the case of Toyota’s lawyers, as recounted by Jay Shepherd in his post, How lawyers save the world…with disclaimers.  While this example of lawyerly caution may strike you as ridiculous, have there been times when you’ve come close?  When did you last say “out of an abundance of caution” or “for the avoidance of doubt” or “to be perfectly clear”?   Chances are, it was at a point when you decided to carry out some redundant effort at the cost of productivity.

The next time you reach for a “belt-and-suspenders” solution, ask yourself if your caution is justified or whether it’s preventing productivity.  If it’s the right thing to do, go ahead.  If not, take (a tiny) walk on the wild side and tip the balance towards action.

[Photo Credit:  Xiaming]


True Productivity

How productive are you?   Really???

A recent post by Rees Morrison on the subject of productivity caught my eye. In it he described the “five-or-10-minute rule,” which recommends that you wait five or 10 minutes between the time you write an e-mail message and the time you send it. The theory is that this brief waiting time will give you an opportunity to think about the consequences of your message before you click send.

I suspect advice like this has saved many of us from acute embarrassment over the years. To my surprise, however, Rees Morrison characterized this advice in the following way:

Good advice, very lawyerly, impossible to criticize, but it will obviously hobble productivity. To advise in-house counsel to ponder the legal consequences of what they do with email – indeed, with everything they do – is to be on the side of the angels, but let productivity go to the devil.

His conclusion made me wonder about his definition of productivity.  If your definition of productivity is to get as much done as possible, a delay of even five minutes on each e-mail message could cost you valuable time for action.  However, what if that rushed e-mail proves to be wrong.  Then taking a few minutes to avert disaster suddenly seems like the most efficient course of action.

I’d suggest that the right definition of productivity is not “get as much done as possible” or even “get as much of the right things done as possible.”  Rather, a better definition of true productivity is:  Get as many of the right things done in the right way. Under this definition of productivity, the “five-or-10-minute rule” makes perfect sense.

[Photo Credit:  f_mafra]


100 Days

Today we’ll hear over and over again about the “importance of the first 100 days.” And, we’ll hear a range of judgments pronounced on the performance of the Obama administration.  Given the usual hype-to-bust news cycle, most of it can be ignored — and I certainly won’t add to it.  However, it is worth noting that when we set aside a specific period of time within which to measure productivity, it gives us a welcome and necessary opportunity to take stock.

I’m not advocating the mindless generation of meaningless statistics about how busy you are.  That exercise doesn’t do any of us credit.  Rather, I’m advocating periodically setting aside the time to do a private, honest inventory.  During the last 100 days, what new means of collaboration have you enabled?  What projects have you completed?  What new initiatives have you begun?  What seemingly intractable problem have you dented?

There is no magic about the 100-day period.  The secret lies in the honest assessment, which allows you to change your pace or adjust your course, as necessary.  When you don’t do this periodic analysis, you run the risk of drift.

In reality, the last 100 days aren’t your most important.  The next 100 are.  However, understanding what has just happened will better prepare you for what is to come.  And, it may even give you a measure of control over the future you create.

[Photo Credit:  BBC world service]


Spending Hours

As New York City slowed down this week in anticipation of the Passover and Easter holidays, I was speeding up in an attempt to “get everything done” before the holidays.  Since I’m congenitally unable to leave things well enough alone, I found myself asking “What is it that am I racing around to get done?”

I should know better than to ask a question like that.

The reality is that for far too many of us, the things on our To Do list represent chores to be disposed of rather than activities that add meaning and joy to our lives.  If you think I’m exaggerating, take a look at Leo Babauta’s recent experience.  On April 1, he wrote Ultra-Simple 3-Step Productivity System for Getting Amazing Things Done and then interesting things happened:

Last week, when I wrote the simple guide to Getting Amazing Things Done, a commenter asked me to write a 12-step guide to the first step — Find Something Amazing to Work On.

I thought he was kidding. I mean, it’s simple, right? Look at your to-do list and pick something that really excites you, that will really make a difference in your life and (ideally) in the lives of others.

But after reading some of the other comments, I realized that not everyone has tasks like that on their to-do lists. Lots of people still haven’t found their Amazing Work.

Folks working against a billable hour or in jobs that count time spent as a proxy for results achieved have an additional problem.  They often find that they measure success by the number of tasks completed by the billable hour and the number of hours occupied.  Here’s how Daniel Tenner describes it:

When working in a self-employed, services job (e.g. freelancing), the idea that hours matter is deeply ingrained, because hours are the measurable thing that we charge for (even though what the client really cares about is getting the job done). In “regular jobs”, hours are also important, because they are the basis of the long-term contract between employer and employee (“Your working hours are from 9am to 6pm on weekdays, excluding public holidays”), and they are the first mechanism an employer will use to make sure you’re working hard enough.


When we measure results instead of hours, something interesting happens: the distinction between work and not-work blurs away and vanishes, for two reasons. First, clever ideas can make a huge difference to results, and ideas occur anywhere, at any time. In fact, they’re least likely to occur while sitting at a desk working. Secondly, it soon becomes obvious that our actual output of things done is correlated far more to how we feel on the day than to how many hours we spend “working”. The real measure of work is not hours – it’s energy.

He goes on to suggest that if we are measuring our days by focusing on energy rather than hours, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  • How much energy do you put into your work?
  • How much of your daily energy do you spend increasing your total energy? Do you feel you spend enough? Do you feel you spend it on the right things?
  • How much of your daily energy do you waste each day? How do you define waste? Is all that waste really unproductive or does it have some beneficial side-effects? Are those side-effects sufficient to justify spending that energy?
  • Do you spend energy on things which actively hurt you?
  • Has your daily energy increased or decreased in the last 6 months? year? 5 years?

Whether you slow down for religious observances this week or not, it would be well worth your while to consider how you spend your time and energy.  After all, those hours you spend can never be recovered.  And only you can ensure they are spent well.

[Photo Credit:  kuow949]


Rethink Your Routine

In Tom Davenport’s terrific post, Microdecisions for Macro Impact, he reminds us that fortunes can be won and lost in the little decisions we make every day. As he astutely notes,

What many companies don’t realize is that microdecisions — small decisions made many times by many workers at the customer interface — can have a major impact on the business. How they are made can be the difference between sloppy and effective execution, and between profit and loss.

Equally, small decisions made in the course of routine procedures can have a profound effect.  If you’re not sure about this, think about the huge beneficial change in health care derived from the simple act of hand washing.  Or, imagine what would happen if your pilot decided to “wing it” and disregarded the standard take-off checklist?

In knowledge management, we regularly spend time thinking about work flow and business process.  And, especially when we’re considering bringing technology into that flow, we have an opportunity to ask whether the individual steps within a process are sensible given current circumstances.  Do they yield the best possible outcome on a predictable basis?

The fact that something is routine does not mean it is optimized.  As you go through your day, take a closer look at the many repeatable acts you perform and consider whether there are small decisions you could make differently to yield much better results.

[Photo Credit:  Wisconsin Historical Society]


The Wrong Kind of Marathon

Here in New York City, we know something about marathons. The NYC Marathon rightfully is famous as one of the sporting highlights of the year. It takes an enormous amount of dedication and effort on the part of participants and organizers alike to prepare for and complete this marathon.

Unfortunately, NYC also hosts another type of marathon, which occurs daily. It’s the “meeting marathon.” Worse still, NYC isn’t the only town with this sporting event. We’ve all been in a meeting marathon — the ultimate corporate test of endurance and, in some cases, sanity. Folks have responded by ignoring the discussion at the meeting and focusing instead on buzzword bingo, texting, doodling, daydreaming … you get the picture.
I’ve written about meetings being the credible alternative to work. However, there are times when holding a meeting is exactly the right thing to do. For example, if you’re trying to implement innovation by teamwork, a meeting will undoubtedly be necessary at some point. So what should you do? To begin with, be very sure that the person who is calling the meeting actually knows how to run a productive meeting. By this I don’t mean that they can convene a meeting without chairs or use some similar gimmick. Too often, the only thing these approaches ensure is that the participants are uncomfortable. They don’t necessarily result in a high-quality productive meeting.
Here are some proven techniques for delivering a productive meeting:
– set a clear time frame and stick to it — this is useful discipline
– be sure the purpose of the meeting is publicized and understood
– realize that the very act of asking the key question changes the outcome of the discussion
– make preparatory materials available before the meeting
– identify potential issues/hurdles and try to address them before the meeting
– understand the constituencies that will be participating — where they sit in the organization will determine where they stand on the issue you’re discussing
– decide whether the goal is to air issues, test a proposal, reach a consensus or close out a discussion and then structure the meeting accordingly
– be clear whether you need a neutral facilitator or a facilitator who actual advocates for a particular position
– be sure you have a meeting facilitator who has the social skills and discipline to help move the conversation along without unnecessarily offending participants
There is no substitute for good preparation. In fact, the quality of preparation is almost always reflected in the quality of the meeting. Chances are that every meeting marathon you’ve ever attended lacked adequate preparation or was chaired by someone who did not have the necessary skills and focus. Thankfully, preparation, skills and focus can all be addressed and improved. There is no longer any need to waste time at meeting marathons. Insist on productivity!