Identifying the problem at work

I am currently giving a bootcamp course on organization and time management at the Donders Institute where I work. About twenty researchers get together every Friday afternoon, and we discuss the tools and strategies we’re using to organize our days and tasks.

I usually give some suggestions or tools for people to try. One of the simplest but, it turns out, most helpful ideas so far has been to identify the problem. When you’re having trouble with something, try to honestly see what’s getting in the way.

I was surprised to hear how many people found this trick helpful. One person said she used it to successfully write a difficult part of her paper. She noticed that she was procrastinating writing, and usually she would have just avoided it for as long as possible. This time, she asked herself what was stopping her, and she realized she didn’t have all the necessary technical information to write the part about her methods. To address this, she contacted people who had that information and, once they gave her the necessary details, she continued with her writing.

Another person was struggling to read papers regularly. He even scheduled time on Fridays to read but always ended up doing something else instead. Through our discussions, he realized that he needed someone else to count on him to read that paper. He made an agreement with his supervisor that at their weekly meeting she would ask him about the paper he’d read that week. Knowing that his supervisor expected him to read the paper was the push he needed to read papers regularly.

Yet a third person was struggling with his data analysis. He often didn’t know how to proceed and how to do his analysis correctly. He realized that he wasn’t seeking out help when he needed it and was trying to be independent even when it was hurting his performance. He found a course he could take to give him the necessary expertise, and he also got in touch with a research group that has experts on that type of analysis. He hopes that these resources will help him to progress more quickly and correctly with his data analysis.

Identifying the problem is a small step, but it makes it possible to take exactly the right action for a specific issue.

Can you apply this to your work? Have you tried it? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

How to get yourself to do what you intended to do

When you make specific plans about when you’ll complete a desired activity, you’re much more likely to do it. But it’s one thing to plan it and another thing to actually complete it. How do you make sure you follow through with your plans?

Implementation intentions are examples of simple, explicit planning: “If situation X arises, then I will do Y.” I explained this in more detail here (point 1).

Specific plans are great, but how do you make sure you actually do them?

  • Put them on your calendar: Make an event on your calendar. When the time comes, do the activity. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, but it only works if you check your calendar and follow what it says.
  • Set reminders: You can add a reminder to your calendar event. Or you can add a separate reminder. Or you can create a note (e.g., in Google Keep) with a reminder. Alternatively, you can put post-it notes around the house or on your computer monitor. The problem with reminders is that they’re easy to ignore.
  • Set an alarm: An alarm is something you actually have to turn off. It requires an action from your side, or otherwise it will continue making noise. Alarms are more effective than reminders because even if you choose to ignore its message, you still have to physically do something such as press the ‘off’ button.
  • Name your intent clearly: When the alarm goes off to tell you to go to bed, for instance, you need to say out loud what you are going to do now:

“I am getting ready to go to bed. I will read for 15 minutes in bed.”

Or, alternatively, if you choose not to follow the intent of the alarm:

“I am staying here and continuing to look at social media.”

If you change your mind sometimes, that’s okay, but then state that clearly:

“I am staying here for 5 more minutes in order to finish my conversation with my brother. In five minutes, I will get up and get ready for bed.”

This may seem silly, but clearly naming what you are doing and what you are going to do incites action.

  • Track the time you spend on certain tasks: Monitor how long different activities take you. Once you have a realistic idea of how much time you spend on what, you can make purposeful, informed choices about what you do more of and what you do less of.
  • Set practical obstacles that prevent you from doing other (unwanted) things: For example, if you’re trying to limit your time on social media, install an app that limits the amount of time you can spend on those sites/apps.
  • Make it easy to follow through with your intentions: If you’d like to go to the gym, lay out your gym clothes from the day before. If you’re trying to have a healthy meal, make your food beforehand.

You can use one of these tips or combine several to make sure you follow through with your implementation intentions. For instance, now I’m reading before bed every night. I’m using several of these strategies: it’s on my calendar; I have an alarm on my phone to tell me to get into bed; I state my intent clearly; and I’ve put my kindle on my night stand, so it’s easy for me to read. Also, before I started this, I tracked the time I spent reading books for pleasure and was disappointed to see that I wasn’t making a lot of time for that. Now, I’m making some changes, and I’m quickly seeing the amount of time spent reading increase.

How do you make sure you complete the things you’d like to do? Or are there any activities you particularly struggle with? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Do focused work and be responsive to external demands

We are expected to quickly respond to things such as email and personal messages, but we also need to do focused work, for instance when we need to write an important document. We can manage to do both if we set up our day so that it fits our activities and our rhythm. Follow these five steps to find out how.

Do you also get drawn into the craziness of being available all the time? A study by Jackson and colleagues shows that the typical person checks email every five minutes and then, on average, it takes 64 seconds to resume the previous task after checking the email.

This leads to worse performance for almost all of us; a study by Watson and Strayer shows that only 2% of the population can pay attention to two things at the same time. When we hear this, most of us think we belong to that 2%. Sorry to break it to you, but we probably don’t.

As much as our culture idolizes multitasking, for almost all of us trying to do many things at the same time leads us to perform worse. It looks like we’ll need to put our beloved multitasking to rest and focus on one thing at a time, the old-fashioned way.

We can do both: allow time for focused, uninterrupted work and also respond to external demands. Here’s how.

1. Do one thing at a time

Since we’re not good at multitasking, we need to do what we do well: do one thing at a time. Choose one task to work on for the next 30 minutes of one hour. And commit to it. Set a timer and begin.

Make sure you eliminate distractions during this time. Also close your email app, close any messaging apps, put your phone on silent and out of reach. Close the extra tabs on your browser; they attract your attention, and you may find yourself clicking on them without even noticing. If you habitually open your browser and end up distracting yourself, you can turn off the wifi on your device or even turn it off in your house if you’re working at home.

Observe yourself and learn about your own tendencies. What attracts your attention? What distraction is so irresistible that you end up pursuing it? If you notice what distracts you, you know what you need to address, and then you can come up with a way to minimize it.

2. Set aside blocks of time for certain activities

Make sure you’ll have time for all those other things that are calling your attention. If you keep wondering what’s in your email, schedule time to look at email after you’ve worked on your important task. If you want to check social media, make sure you give yourself 10 minutes to do that after your focused time period is finished.

One way to do this is to schedule specific time blocks for certain activities. For instance:
20181116_153537.jpg

Image credit: Marisha Manahova

Another way is to pair two activities: after you’ve completed the first one, you can do the second one. For example:

“After I’ve worked on my article for 45 minutes,
Then I will look at social media for 10 minutes.”

Knowing that you will get to the activities that are attracting your attention puts your mind at peace. Even if you’re not responding to your emails right now, you will get to them in a hour.

3. Figure out when you have the most energy

It is also important to figure out when is a good time for you to do focused work. Till Roennenberg, author of Internal Time, developed a useful way to figure this out.

On a free day, at what time do you wake up? This doesn’t refer to the day after you’ve been out all night. Rather, if you’ve had a few days when you could go to sleep and get up whenever you wanted, what does your wake up time end up being?

That is your natural wake up time. After that, the body has some sleep inertia (i.e., remaining sleepiness) which lasts for 2-3 hours. Once the sleep inertia has lifted, then your peak energy starts and lasts for about 4 hours. To illustrate this, let’s take an example:

20181116_153910

Image credit: Marisha Manahova

In order to take advantage of your peak energy, you should schedule your main task for the day sometime in that peak energy window. Other tasks, such as email and administrative tasks, can be left for other parts of the day.

4. Set your main task for the day

According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, each day should have a main task, also known as an anchor task. This is the most important (and often most difficult) thing you need to do that day. It should be prioritized over other tasks, and you should devote uninterrupted time to it during your peak energy window.

5. Prepare for the next day
At the end of each workday, spend 10 minutes planning the next day at work. Look at your calendar and at your tasks for the next day and decide what would be the best time distribution. What will your anchor task be? Schedule 1.5-2 hours to work on it during your peak energy window. What other 1-3 tasks will you need to work on? These are smaller tasks (i.e., not your anchor task) that still need to get done but are not as important and don’t demand as much attention as your anchor task. Schedule time for those either during your peak energy window or outside it.

Also, schedule time for email, messages, and other external demands. It usually works well to have two time blocks scheduled for that, for instance, one hour right before lunch and one hour at the end of the workday.

Putting it all together

To put this all together, you can take the following steps:

  • Start by figuring out when your peak energy window is;
  • For each day, decide on an anchor (i.e., main) task;
  • Schedule time to work on the anchor task during your peak energy window;
  • Schedule time to work on smaller tasks during other times of the day;
  • Schedule blocks of time for email, messages, external demands, social media, or whatever else tends to call for your attention.

Once you’ve planned out your day, all you need to do is set the timer and get going.

Have you tried this? What did you find? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Find your peak energy window

By doing difficult or important work in your peak energy window, you can greatly increase your productivity and the quality of your work. Here is how to find out when your peak energy window is.

Have you ever been asked, “Are you a morning person or an evening person?” If so, what did you answer?

While this is a useful question in order to get to know yourself better, the truth is more nuanced than that. Till Roennenberg, author of Internal Time, developed a useful way to think about this. With a couple of simple steps, you can figure out for yourself when your peak energy window is.

Let’s say you’re on vacation; you don’t have to wake up early for work, and you also didn’t stay up too late last night. You went to bed when you got sleepy, and you woke up rested.

On that morning, at what time did you wake up? That is your natural wake up time.

After you’ve naturally woken up, the body has some sleep inertia which lasts for 2-3 hours. Once the sleep inertia has receded, your peak energy window starts and lasts for about 4 hours. To illustrate this, let’s take an example:

Natural wake up time: 8:00
Sleep inertia: 8:00-10:30
Peak energy: 10:30-14:30

In order to take advantage of your peak energy, you should work on the most important task for the day (or the most difficult thing for the day) in that peak energy window. Other tasks, such as email and administrative tasks, can be left for other parts of the day.

So if your natural wake up time is around 8:00 and you start work at 9:00, you’ll be trying to work in the middle of your sleep inertia. It’s not surprising, then, that you can’t get yourself to focus or be productive. You’d be better off doing some simpler tasks until about 10:30 and then starting on the important/difficult task.

You may have noted that lunch falls right in the middle of that peak energy window for most of us. This could be a bit of a waste since many of us experience an after-lunch dip. To minimize it, you may eat a medium-sized lunch instead of a big one since a smaller meal will make you less sleepy. Also, metabolizing carbs tends to make us more sleepy than metabolizing protein or healthy fats, so you may want to minimize carbs at lunch and include more at dinner, for instance.

If you’ve seen my previous blog post about swallowing the frog first thing in the morning, you may be confused: these two blog posts seem to give conflicting pieces of advice. This may very well be the case, and you need to figure out what works best for you. That’s why it’s best to try out both and see how you feel and perform with each.

For someone with an early natural wake up time, doing the important task first thing in the morning may be effective since it coincides with her peak energy window. For someone with a later natural wake up time, however, this would mean trying to work on something difficult during their sleep inertia period, which may not be a great idea.

My natural wake up time is early, so my peak energy window is approximately 9:00-13:00. Often I actually move my lunch to 13:00, so I’ve used all my peak energy time for focused work. In the afternoon, I can focus, but it’s more difficult (unless I have some green or black (!) tea). After 17:00, don’t count on me to concentrate well.

In contrast, I know people who are only really awake from 14:00. A colleague of mine knows this about himself and has purposefully switched his working hours to 12:00-20:00. He does his best work 14:00-18:00. He used to try to work in the mornings, but he ended up not delivering results because half of his days were wasted.

This is why it’s important to figure out when you do your best work and, if you have the possibility, try to adapt your schedule to that. I realize that not everybody has such a flexible schedule, but for those of us who do, it’s a shame not to use such a simple tool.

What is your natural wake up time? Do you experience sleep inertia? When is your peak energy window? Are you able to focus in the afternoon/evening? I’m really curious, so please let me know! Comment below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

My little experiment with “swallowing the frog”

Starting with the most important task of the day every morning for a week made me more satisfied with my work, a little more productive, and a little bit anxious about what was waiting for me in my inbox.

Okay, I did it! For one week, I started with the most important task of the day and worked on it for 1.5-2 hours before checking email, messages, or any other external demands. To see my thoughts on this before I began, read this blog post.

My verdict is that “swallowing the frog” was useful. It was amazing that by 10:00 in the morning, I had done a great deal of work on my most important task of the day. It felt satisfying and calming in a way. No matter what came up during the rest of the day, I had already made remarkable progress with an important work task.

In terms of productivity, I think it helped a little. I managed to get a lot of things done this week, but it’s difficult to say if I would have gotten less done had I not implemented this. The benefit was that once I had the big task out of the way, I had time for many smaller tasks which I probably wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise.

For somebody else who works in a busier environment with more interruptions, this could be a bigger game changer though. If it is really difficult to find uninterrupted time for focused work during the day, getting in that time first thing in the morning can really help. Since I’m doing a PhD, nobody ever really needs me urgently, so I don’t get interrupted that much.

Frog

There’s really no reason to include a picture of a frog, except that I wanted to.

Image credit: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

With that said, it was still strange for me to not check email before starting my work. I had an uneasy feeling: “Who knows what emails I’ve received? Who knows what messages are waiting for me?” Inadvertently, once I checked my emails and messages after my first ~2 hours of focused work, there was nothing urgent there. There were things I had to take note of or respond to, but nothing that I had missed or delayed by not responding a few hours earlier.

Actually, I noticed something interesting. What I sometimes do (in general, not this past week) when I have an important task to work on is that first I quickly check my emails and messages to make sure there’s nothing urgent. Once I assure myself of that, I close my email without responding and begin working on the important task. Intuitively, this should calm me down because I know there’s nothing urgent.

However, in reality, my mind is drawn to those messages. How should I respond? What do I think about this? So instead of focusing entirely on the important task at hand, part of my cognitive resources are drawn towards the emails I just skimmed. This detracts from my focus.

During this past week, I didn’t experience this because I didn’t take a peek at my emails before starting with the task. This turned out to be a very good idea because my attention was entirely devoted to what I was working on. And afterwards when I did check my emails and messages, I responded to them right away without wasting cognitive resources on planning my answers.

For now I’m going to stick with “swallowing the frog.” It felt good to have important work done early in the day, and it boosted my productivity a little. And I will keep working on the struggle of not checking email and messages first thing in the morning. I will probably get used to working in this way and thus feel less anxious about it in a few weeks.

How about you? Have you tried “swallowing the frog” first thing in the morning? If so, does it work for you? What type of workflow works for you in general? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The eternal debate: “Swallow that frog” or start with small tasks

My struggle and search for the right way to start the workday.

On most days, I enter my office early when there’s nobody there yet. Time feels precious: it’s quiet, and the sun is tentatively streaming through the window. My mind is sharp, and I feel like I can tackle anything.

But I don’t feel like taking on the most difficult project of the day yet. This is what numerous productivity books recommend and refer to as ‘swallowing that frog’ because it’s the thing you don’t want to do. I have the whole day ahead of me, do I really need to start on that daunting task already?

Instead, I’d much rather read an interesting paper or respond to some emails. Maybe send out a couple of announcements or complete several small tasks. That feels much more manageable and fun.

By the time I’ve done all those little things, hours have gone by. My golden morning hours are over, the office is buzzing, meetings are about to take place, and external demands start coming in. It becomes difficult to concentrate because so many things are competing for my attention. It’s a challenge to try to do deep, focused work.

Swallow that frog

Ah, why didn’t I use my early morning to work on that difficult task? The later it gets in the day, the more difficult it becomes to find uninterrupted time to really focus on a task. Often it takes me longer (e.g., 2 hours) to complete a task that would have taken me less time (e.g., 1 hour) in the morning when I’d have been able to focus solely on that. Alternatively, I might not find the time to work on that task at all, so it may get pushed to tomorrow.

In principle, I know the benefits of tackling the most difficult thing of the day first thing in the morning. But I don’t want to. It feels too daunting, and it’s just so much easier to start by doing something small.

Also, I am afraid that if I don’t check my email, Slack, and Trello the moment I get to work, I might miss something important. Maybe someone needs my response urgently. How can I keep them waiting?

To be honest, there are very few urgent matters in my job. I can’t think of an email or message that couldn’t wait for a couple of hours. So this concern is mostly in my head. Nothing would happen if I responded to an email in a few hours rather than immediately. Nobody would even notice.

The Pledge

Okay, blogosphere: I pledge to you that next week I will start every day by “swallowing the frog.” I will begin my work day with that big, daunting task and work on it for about 2 hours before doing anything else. Only after that will I look at emails, respond to messages, or do small tasks.

At the end of the week, I will give my verdict: does it make a difference? Did I get more done by working on the main task first thing in the morning? Or did it not matter? Also, did it make me nervous to not respond to external demands right away? Or did it feel good to have the main task, that gray cloud hanging over my head, out of the way early? I’ll let you know.

Stay tuned for the results of my little experiment!

What do you do? What do you work on first in your day? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Eliminate things you don’t have to and don’t want to do

Over the past few weeks, people have approached me and said, “Your system sounds great, but it’s so complicated! I can never see myself do all that.”

While it sounds more complicated than it is when actually applied, I understand this concern. So many things to apply, where to even start?

Therefore, I’m going to suggest one simple thing you can do: eliminate one activity that you don’t have to and don’t want to do.

It is quite simple and very powerful. There are four steps:

  1. Monitor how you spend your time.
  2. Find something you don’t have to and don’t want to do.
  3. Eliminate it!
  4. Replace it with an activity you’d like to do.

I’ll explain each one in turn.

  1. Monitor how you spend your time.

Before you can make any changes, you need to know how you, in reality, spend your time. That doesn’t refer to how you’d like to spend your time ideally, but how you do so realistically.

If you have a calendar that accurately describes how you spend your time, then you can just take a look at your calendar. If your calendar only contains appointments, though, you’ll need to do some more digging and reflection.

You could also track your activities. For a couple of days or a week, you could track how long you spend on different activities. You can use a stopwatch (i.e., your phone), pen, and paper or an app such as Toggl. Whatever you’d like to use is fine; the point is to get a realistic overview of how much time you spend on different activities.

The first time you track your time can be a bit shocking. I remember my first reaction after a week-long tracking and looking at the output from Toggl: “This is how long I spend showering, putting on cosmetics, and doing my hair?! I’m never putting on lotion or drying my hair again!” Now, that’s not the point. The goal is to realize how long these things take and to then make an informed choice about whether these things are important enough to us to deserve that time.

2. Find something you don’t have to and don’t want to do.

Now that you know what you spend your time on, make a list with two columns:

  • Things you don’t have to do;
  • Things you don’t want to do.

Do you have any items listed in both columns? If you do, great! Those are your items to eliminate.

For instance, many people are surprised by how much time they spend on social media. They find that they neither want or have to spend so long on those apps and websites. That’s a clear one to eliminate because you really don’t have to do it. But the appeal of social media lies in the powerful reward mechanisms that are in place there, so for an effective way to eliminate those, see 4.

In relation to work, we sometimes find we are attending meetings we don’t want to attend and, strictly speaking, we don’t have to attend. It’s important to ask yourself here, “What function is this meeting serving for the institution I belong to, and what is my (possible) contribution in this meeting?” If your contribution in that particular meeting is minimal or none, you will probably do better skipping the meeting and contributing to the institution in a better way. Alternatively (and what I deem the better choice), you can decide to step up your game and actually contribute during that meeting.

Similarly, sometimes we get involved in projects we don’t really want to participate in, whether at work or in the community. We often don’t need to participate in these projects but somehow get dragged into them. Importantly, when we spend time on something we don’t care about, that saps our energy for things we do care about. So, if you don’t have to be on a project you don’t care about, find a way out! Apologize and say that your priorities have shifted. You owe it to yourself and to your institution or community to spend your time on things you care about, whenever possible.

As another example, we often get irritated by the amount of time we spend cleaning our homes. Most of us don’t get a lot of fulfillment from cleaning our kitchen or vacuuming our floor (although mindful housework is definitely a thing). Thus, you can consider whether you can afford to hire somebody to clean your house. Usually, it’s not that expensive, and it makes a huge difference in your life. I was amazed at how much quality time I got on my weekends by outsourcing those 3 hours of cleaning per week!

3. Eliminate it!

Just delete it from your calendar! Yeaaahhh!!!

On a more serious note, if necessary, discuss this with any people who are influenced by your choice. Don’t be mean about it but also be firm and affirm your priorities.

4. Replace it with an activity you’d like to do.

This one is crucial! If you just leave the time free, it will get filled with… stuff. That’s how life works. And then you won’t be any happier with the way you’re spending your time. As useful as it is to eliminate activities you don’t want to do, it’s even more important to actually do things you want to do.

The social media example is a really good one in this case. We tend to spend lots of time on social media in our free time when we have nothing to do. It’s an easy way to get some quick enjoyment even though it’s not really satisfying in the long term. In the end, we often feel guilty afterwards because we wanted to do something more valuable with our time, but we just didn’t manage.

I’ve heard lots of solutions for this one. I think it’s useful to time ourselves and stop when the time we’ve allotted for social media is up. But even better is to decide what you’d like to do instead. Would you like to watch your favorite TV show? Or would you like to read? For instance, I have replaced most of my social media time with reading, and it’s so much more rewarding and relaxing for me.

Someone specifically shared that she noticed she went on social media mindlessly. It was as though her fingers clicked on the icons themselves. To change this, she moved the icons of her social media apps to a different place on her phone, and in the old place she put her Kindle app. This helped her to change her habit of visiting social media to reading. I thought it was brilliant!

I have done something similar by adding an easily-accessible icon to my Gmail folder with emails from my favorite blogs. In this way, I can quickly access quick reads that I know I will enjoy.

Regarding the work example, once you’ve freed up time from unwanted meetings or projects, make sure to replace that with time for things you actually want to be working on. This will help you make more progress on the work you care about and will also make you feel more fulfilled.

About the house cleaning example, you can replace this with pleasant, quality time activities! Many of us clean on the weekend, so ask yourself: “What would I like to do with three extra hours on my weekend?” That sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?

Once again, the key is not just to eliminate unnecessary activities but to replace them with things you actively choose to do. In this way, you spend more time on things you truly care about and want in your life, so the way you spend your time can be more aligned with your priorities.

How do you choose how to spend your time? Have you tried this, and how did it work for you? I’d love to hear from you! Comment below or let me know on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. As always, thanks for reading 🙂