Eighty days into lockdown, Friday’s Zoom quarantine catch-up with friends makes for sober listening. Paloma, financial analyst starts by telling us she was up till 11pm finishing a report the previous evening. Juan, head of Purchasing, follows, saying that his back-to-back video meetings often run through lunch, triggering debilitating migraines. Worse still, Ana, IT project manager, tells us that sudden attacks of stress-induced vertigo are forcing her to take time off work. “I was putting in an average of two more hours every day, yet I still can’t seem to get through it all. It’s crazy”.

Sadly, similar stories of toxic “permawork” are all too common. Yet none of my friends work in front-line essential companies like health, energy or food distribution, nor do they hold key roles, so what’s going on? According to Kristine Dery of MIT Center for Information Systems Research, what we are seeing is “an unhealthy mix of “overperforming” by workers anxious to prove their worth in an unstable economy, combined with lack of appropriate leadership”.

But while many leaders certainly need to up their game, we can’t blame everything on the boss. The unfortunate truth is that overworking is nothing new, and of course, those who have additional caring, domestic and home-schooling responsibilities will have even greater difficulties right now. Yet it’s up to each of us to do what we can to help ourselves “slow the wheel”.  And though magic solutions are few and far between, here are some practical tips to help you work and live smarter in these difficult times.

 7 Steps to Improve Productivity and Safeguard Well-being


1. Break the “always-on” cycle and become more productive

 Agree core hours to be available to the rest of your team, but block off periods for deep workfor analysis, creative work or even just to make sure you get your lunch! Interruptions break focus and cost us extra time at our desks—as renowned researcher Gloria Mark of the University of California found, each time the typical office worker is interrupted it can take over 23 minutes just to get back to the state of focus where they left off. End your day at a reasonable time by not starting meetings after 4 pm—lobby the scheduler and/or enlist allies in order to make it happen. If colleagues ring or send messages outside normal working hours, hold off responding until the next day.

2. Audit your meetings

In line with the above, the First Law of Meetings states: Meetings will expand exponentially to take up all the time available. Now is a good time to audit (if possible, with colleagues) your regularly scheduled meetings. Take a close look at your meeting calendar for the coming month—what changes could you make in view of changed priorities or procedures? Questions to ask: Is this meeting still relevant? Can we reduce the frequency? Or even, is a meeting still needed, or can we do this via Slack, Trello, etc.

3. Turn down the party invite

The Second Law of Meetings states: Invite twice as many people as you really need because you don’t know who does what and you don’t want to upset anyone. Take a leaf from Jeff Bezo’s book and turn down as many meeting invites as possible! Ask yourself: What can I contribute to this meeting? Am I being invited out of inertia? Should someone else from my team/department go instead? Can I attend for only part of it? Is it enough just to read the meeting minutes?

4. Make time for downtime

In our normal routine, time spent commuting, moving between meetings, or even queuing for lunch gives us a short mental break, as well as providing us with a chance to activate our bodies. Try deliberately building in some downtime by making all meetings 10 minutes shorter to allow yourself a break to stretch and silently refresh. Even five minutes is enough to clear your mind or do some Mindfulness to boost focus and relaxation. Try Insight timer or Bhuddify for some guided practices.

5. Set limits: Say NO!

Work is a constant to-and-fro of requests and conflicting priorities. Other people don’t know what you have on your plate normally, let alone right now with family duties added in, so it’s up to you to say No. Saying No is not a sign of being unhelpful; it’s your professional duty to say No. Saying No means saying Yes to getting your job done right, and Yes to a healthy work-life balance. Just remember to say it nicely. And remember that people don’t necessarily know your timetable—your voice mail serves a purpose! In the words of Warren Buffet,You can’t let other people manage your agenda in life”.

6. Say No to the busy drug!

“I’ll just finish this before I stop”. Sound familiar? Research shows that we get a rush of addictive, pleasure-inducing dopamine just before and immediately after completing a task—that’s why we love ticking off to-do lists! But the truth is, work is ongoing—most of us could all work all night and still not finish. The answer? Learn to live with the discomfort of incompletion, choose your battles and avoid perfectionism. Ask yourself: What’s keeping me busy? Is it worth it? Are there things on my plate I should stop or let go? Ask for help and let others grow. On the home front, for example, my 11 year-old son is doing a great job of ironing and cleaning the bathroom during quarantine, while my 17 year-old daughter has turned out some wonderful meals, all the while learning valuable life-skills. Now or never is the time to delegate!

7. Close the door and get your life back!

For bored Singletons or harassed parents alike, it can be hard to switch off, especially when there’s so much to do and we’re all dressed up with nowhere to go! Set alarms, use technology such as FocusMe, ScreenTime (or others) and enlist partners and children to get you away from your desk and back into your life. Before you leave, help yourself relax by writing a short to-do list of tomorrow’s tasks to prevent worrying and—literally or metaphorically—just walk out that door to relax, re-charge and enjoy your life!

The next time you feel overwhelmed, just pause for a moment and ask: What is one thing I can do to change this? Now, more than ever, it’s up to each of us to change the dynamics of “permawork” to work smart and live even smarter. Here’s a Zoom toast to that!

If you’d like to learn more about fostering resilience and boosting personal and team effectiveness, check out our Remote Team Success series.

mindfulness

I’m on my way to a client meeting. After inching through traffic and driving around and around looking for a parking space, I’m now walking towards her office. I take out my mobile, glance at the screen and put it back in my pocket. But…what time is it? I get my mobile out again, read a Whatsapp that I’ve just received, and put it back.  Hang on, what time was it? I check my phone yet again and see that I’ve got ten minutes spare.

I start going over my notes from our last meeting, but suddenly remember I was supposed to call the painter. While dialing I fumble in my pocket for a coin for the vending machine. With the rush this morning I didn’t have time for breakfast and my stomach is grumbling. Phone jammed against my shoulder, I stir my coffee and push the button for some biscuits which promptly get stuck. I give the machine a hard nudge to make the biscuits fall, but only manage to spill my coffee, drop the phone and crack the screen. What a disaster!

Stress affects our work, family and health

Home at last, worn out from an exhausting day, I’m longing to relax. But not a chance! My 8 year-old son comes crying because he’s just fallen, and his 10 year-old brother wants me to help him revise for an exam tomorrow. Meanwhile, my wife grabs her bag and announces that she’s on her way out to dinner with some friends (“I told you. Don’t you remember?”). My stomach is starting to churn,  my head is starting to throb and I think out loud, “What did I do to deserve this?”

Sound familiar? Lack of concentration; failed multitasking; unexpected situations that overwhelm you… It happens to all of us.  It all adds up to stress that over time can seriously affect our physical and mental wellbeing.

Retrain your brain

Faced with the challenges that every day brings, our thought patterns are often unhelpful. According to an article from the US National Science Foundation, 80% of our daily thoughts are negative, and 95% are repetitive and identical to those of the previous day. And in the words of Mahatma Gandhi:“A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes”.

So, what can we do? Retrain our brains of course! As Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Nobel prize winner for Medicine, once said: “If we try, we can all can become sculptors of our brains”. Neuroplasticity is the term neurologists use for the capacity our brain has to evolve if we train and stimulate it in certain manner.

So how can I retrain my brain? A simple and effective way  to do this is via the practice of Mindfulness or full attention. Mindfulness is a type of body and mind training that helps reduce stress, boost concentration, and improve our wellbeing. It’s all about focusing our attention in a non-judgmental way on the present moment. Our goal is to calmly decide on the correct course of action and avoid getting carried away by automatic responses.

Address your daily challenges more effectively with Mindfulness

Mindfulness can help us work more effectively on our daily challenges—whatever they may be.  It helps us to regulate our emotions, get things in perspective and take better decision, for instance. Like a ‘steroid’ for the mind, mindfulness allows  us to find the best versions of ourselves and boost our performance. Incredibly, as outlined in the Harvard Business Review, researchers from the University of British Columbia showed that Mindfulness can literally change our brains and even increase the density of our grey matter.

From Ronaldo, Federer and Madonna to Elon Musk and LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner, many sports stars, artists and entrepreneurs have incorporated Mindfulness and meditation techniques into their daily routines. As Bill Gates says, “I now see that meditation is simply exercise for the mind, similar to the way we exercise our muscles when we play sports. It’s about taking a few minutes out of my day, learning how to pay attention to the thoughts in my head, and gaining a little bit of distance from them”.

Mindfulness in the workplace

But how can I do this in the office (which is where I most need it!)? Easy!

Although Mindfulness is “a recent science”, it is based on age-old techniques of meditation. You don’t need to shut yourself away in a monastery to practise it, however! Simple meditation or full attention exercises are all you need to do to enjoy the benefits of Mindfulness.

In recent years, firms such as Google, SAP, Apple, Bosch, Goldman Sachs—even the Bank of England and the US military—have been using Mindfulness to improve work performance, as described in this report by the Boston Consulting Group. Likewise, 64% of 102 firms certified as Top Employers in Spain have already launched Mindfulness programmes.

Practise Mindfulness with the STOP Exercise

If you want to practise a simple Mindfulness technique that you can do anywhere, try the STOP Exercise. You only need a couple of minutes to do it – just find a quiet place and follow these steps:

S: Stop.

T: Take some deep breaths: Breathe in; Breathe out.

O: Observe yourself. How do you feel? What emotion are you feeling? What thoughts come to your mind? How does your body feel?

P: Proceed. Continue doing what you were doing before performing this consciousness exercise.

You’ll see that investing just two minutes of your time in this way will make you feel calmer and better able to choose the appropriate response to the situation you are facing. Practised regularly, Mindfulness can strengthen our capacity to adapt to change and learn new things. It makes our minds more agile and helps us find answers within ourselves. Vaccinate yourself against stress with Mindfulness!

Finally, we can’t solve all your problems, but we can promise that an introductory session of Mindfulness in the workplace will set you on the right path to finding solutions that work for you!

 

 

productividad

The real winners in life get up early. We’ve all read about these new masters of productivity. Leaping out of bed well before dawn, they put themselves through their paces in the gym, maybe a session or two of meditation before speeding through a couple of chapters of the latest inspirational business bestseller. Then while the rest of us lazy mortals are still dozing in our beds, the early-bird elite are already heading to the office in the dark, ready to launch the latest idea to break into the Fortune 500.

Or so the story goes…The idea that the early bird is more virtuous and much more likely to get the proverbial worm is deeply engrained. Witness, for example, the cult following of The 5AM Club by renowned success and productivity guru Robin Sharma, who claims that by actually getting up before the birds themselves, we will feel more energized and productive for the whole day ahead.

But human beings are simply not all wired the same way. For every example of legendary early-risers like Napoleon, Thomas Edison and Apple CEO Tim Cook, there are stories of famous night owl high-achievers like Charles Darwin, Barack Obama or Winston Churchill (who would write until 2 or 3 AM and stay in bed until late morning).

Know your Chronotype!

And while some of us are built for the 5AM club, others are built more for the night club. Depending on our chronotype, some of us are more productive early in the morning, while others get way more done later in the day or even at night. For instance, I have a colleague that swears that a light seems to switch on in her brain at around 11 AM. That’s when  she can suddenly feels her energy start to rise. Even if she manages to get up early, she feels tired, miserable and unfocused until her natural rhythm kicks in. So in order to be successful, we need to know when we are at our most productive and organize our time accordingly.

Take full advantage of your good times!

Astonishingly, a recent survey found that the average UK office worker is only productive for around three hours a day…2 hours and 53 minutes to be precise! So, what happens to the rest of the eight-hour working day? Social media, coffee breaks and non-work related chatter swallow up much of the time. So if you’re only really productive for three hours a day, you’d better know when they are!

The truth is, most productive people get more done by taking full advantage of these key hours in their work day (or night!). They realise that unlike Superman, their energy is not unlimited and instead identify the times when they work best. Here’s how you can do something similar:

Four easy ways to boost your productivity

1. Find your peak

First, log your time during a typical working week to discover exactly where your time goes; and identify the hours when you are most productive. The best way to do this is to look back at the end of the day. Good apps for this are OfficeTime and TimeCamp –good old pen and paper works too of course!

2. Schedule your high-energy work tasks

Our energy levels fluctuate during the day, so make sure you schedule your most important (and high concentration) work for when your energy levels are high. Productivity guru David Allen, author of Getting Things Done advises, “If your energy is low, for example, select actions that are easier to complete, such as busywork or administrative chores or errands, to get you up and moving”.  In other words, do high-value work when your energy is high and low-value work when your energy is low. Follow the sun!

3. Give yourself a little TLC!

Thirdly, take breaks…nobody can maintain high levels of energy all through an eight-hour day. Remember to include break times for when you’re likely to be losing focus, particularly when you’re looking to stimulate your creativity. As Allen says: “Sometimes the smartest thing to do is to take a break and go for a walk”. And Robin Sharma shares this “game-changing” tip he uses to do his best work: “Work in 90 minute blocks with 10 minute intervals to recover and refuel”.

In addition, be careful to eat well. Skipping meals or subsisting on Coke and Pringles will alter your blood sugar, making it difficult to concentrate and focus on the task at hand. Keep your body and your brain well fuelled and hydrated to help you maximize your productivity.

4. Less is more…Set realistic goals and re-adjust

 Last but not least, limit the number of daily goals you set for yourself . That way you can focus on completing them and allow time for long-term initiatives. Also, always leave a 20% margin for the unexpected. Monitor your progress and adjust your plans as necessary. Allen concludes: “When it comes to productivity and creating to-do lists, the biggest mistake that even smart people make is focusing too much on their goals and not giving themselves the freedom to take a step back to recalibrate their focus”.

Finally, if we look at the natural world, animals can teach us a valuable lesson about productivity. Some do their best work at night, while others are more effective during the day.  Why the difference? In nature it’s all about survival. Owls and bats have big eyes and big ears because they’re built to be more successful at night. Early is not the only way! So remember, in order to be more productive it doesn’t matter whether you’re a night owl or an early bird. You just need to know yourself and play to your strengths!

Interested in discovering more? Sign up for our Skills Pills workshop Boosting your productivity

positive thinking, glass half-full

Former US president Ronald Reagan was famous for his sense of humour. One of his favourite stories concerned two little boys and a pony. The boys were twins, but had radically different personalities. One was a total optimist, while the other was a total pessimist. Their parents became so concerned by this that they took them to see a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist treated the pessimist first. He took the boy into a room piled high with toys. Instead of shouting with excitement, however, the little boy burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” asked the psychiatrist. “Don’t you want to play with these wonderful toys?” “Of course I do,” sobbed the boy, “but I’m afraid that I’ll break them.”

Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. He took the boy into a room piled high with horse manure. Instead of holding his nose in disgust, however, the little boy shouted with delight. Then he jumped on top of the pile and began digging through it with his bare hands. “What are you doing?” asked the puzzled psychiatrist. “With all this manure,” said the boy, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

Where’s the pony?

Reagan told this story so often that it became a running joke with his staff. Whenever things went wrong, a staff member would say, “Don’t panic! There must be a pony in here somewhere.” The story is a good reminder of the importance of positive thinking. But things don’t always work out well in the real world. What happens when there is no pony…when there’s just a pile of horse manure?

Nowadays we’re bombarded from all sides with the message that we must think positive. Everyone from current US president Barack Obama (Yes we can!) to motivational speakers like Tony Robbins beat the drum with their incessant positivism. But telling yourself that everything will work out well is poor preparation for when the opposite occurs.

Dangers of positive thinking

Perhaps the ancient philosophers can remind us of a few things today’s management gurus seem to have forgotten. The ancients understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, success with failure. The Stoics of ancient Greece recommended something they called “the premeditation of evils”. Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking, explains that this is “a wonderful technique which involves deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario, instead of the best one. One benefit of that is that you replace limitless panic and fear – which is how we often respond to problems – with a sober analysis of exactly how badly things could go wrong.”

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst!

This concept is similar to what psychologists now call defensive pessimism. Defensive pessimism is a type of negative thinking that produces highly positive results for many people. When faced by a new challenge, defensive pessimists have limited expectations for themselves and analyze in detail everything that may go wrong. They then figure out how they will respond to each potential difficulty. In today’s ‘yes we can‘ world, business people would do well to remember the importance of negative thinking. It can help us accurately assess risk, focus our efforts on achievable goals rather than waste time on unrealistic dreams, and even lower our levels of stress – after all, few things are as stressing as the constant demand for 24/7 positivity.

Welcome critical thinkers!

So, the advice is clear: always looking on the bright side is a mistake. Indeed, some of your most valuable team members may be those who raise objections and appear less than positive. After all, as someone once said, “I like pessimists. They’re always the ones who bring life jackets for the boat.” And as someone else said, “There MAY be a pony in here somewhere. But let’s get real, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s (probably) a duck!”

using notes to remember

My son find it hard to  remember things.

Me: Bryan, do you have any homework this weekend?

Bryan: Homework?

Me: Yeah, you know, schoolwork you do at home. So, have you got any?

Bryan: I’m not sure. I don’t remember what the teacher said.

Me: How many times have I told you to note down your homework assignments?

Bryan: Oh, wait a minute. I think I remember noting something down. Here it is. Yes, I have to write a book report for Monday.

Me: Fantastic! I’m proud of you, Bryan! You see how noting things down is important.

Bryan: Papá, just one problem. I forgot to bring the book home…

Rehearse to remember

My son is not alone in having trouble remembering things (I also have a wife, but that’s another story)… Many participants on our public speaking courses comment that they find it difficult to remember everything they want to say in their presentations. The most obvious solution to this problem is to prepare well. You should never make a presentation without first rehearsing what you are going to say…out loud! Practising your presentation out loud will not only give you a feel for the language you are going to use, it will also help you memorise the order and flow of what you want to say.

Using notes to

You can also make notes if you feel this will help. Imitate television presenters and use small cards that you can hold in one hand easily. This will allow you to continue gesturing with both hands as you speak. Just write the key words necessary to jog your memory and only look at the cards if you get stuck.

Help you audience remember your message

But what else can you do to remember what you need to say? And by the way, you’re not the only one who needs to remember your presentation. What about the audience?  They’re the people who really need to remember it! After all, that’s why you’re giving the presentation, right? So, how can you make it more memorable? Here are a few ideas to get you started. In each case, imagine you have to give a presentation with a three or four-part structure and you’re worried you might forget something –or worse still that your audience won’t remember your main points.

  1. Alliteration:

    Use words that begin with the same sound to label each section in the presentation. For example, if you structure a sales presentation around your product’s benefits you could make it more memorable by labelling the sections Convenience – Compatibility – Cost.

  2. Acronyms:

    Each letter in the acronym represents the first letter of one of your section labels. For example, every US school student is taught that the easiest way to remember the five Great Lakes is HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior). It’s not that difficult to transfer this idea to a business presentation. How about a project update presentation that deals with Assignments – Requirements – Timings (ART).

  3. Acrostics:

    This time the first letter of each word in a phrase represents a target word to be remembered. For example, ‘My Dear Aunt Sally’ is often used to teach children the correct sequence for mathematical operations (Multiply, Divide, Add, Subtract).  Once again, a little creativity can go a long way to solving your memory problems.  Acrostics and acronyms are particularly useful if you need to remember information in the correct order.      

OK, you say, but you’ve forgotten that I have a bad memory. How will I ever remember these ideas? Easy…you just need to think A-A-A (Alliteration Acronyms Acrostics). And that’s something even my son can remember! From  visualisation to video games ( !) , there are many easy techniques to build a more powerful memory – you just need to find the one that works for you!

Want to gain more confidence in speaking in public? Our hit workshop High-Impact Presenting is full of practical tups to help you polish your performance, reduce your nerves and really engage the audience.