Backlogged? Work Like You’re Going On Vacation

Airplane by Atelier Iceberg from The Noun Project

Airplane by Atelier Iceberg from The Noun Project

The average worker’s backlog is around 30 hours, or roughly three or four days of things that are begging to be finished. How can you power through this nagging heap? Simple: treat it like you’re going on vacation. According to 168 Hours author Laura Vanderkam:

The deadline of leaving is the thing that’s finally going to motivate you to get it done. The stuff that gets on your backlog is usually big and intimidating, anything that takes deep, concentrated, uninterrupted time to get done. 

Productivity expert David Allen suggests that we adopt this vacation mentality regularly: 

Most people feel best about their work the week before their vacation, but it’s not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you leave on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others. I just suggest that you do this weekly instead of yearly.

Think of all the things that you do before you’re about to go on vacation — you rush to define the priorities, necessities and back-up plans to prepare your clients and/or team for a period of time in which you’ll be “off the grid.” Work like you’re about to go on vacation and you’ll be able to de-clutter and step far away from your projects without worry.

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2 Emails That Can Shrink Your Workload By 20%

By Denis Lelic

By Denis Lelic

Parkinson’s Law states that work “expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This could likely explain why you sometimes work more than 60 hours per week, when in fact you could easily shave off 20 or so hours by managing expectations with your boss/client. Instead of flinging yourself into the workweek with unrealistic expectations of clearing everything off of your to-do list, let the people who depend on you know what you plan to accomplish. Robbie Amed, author of Fire Me I Beg You, suggests writing two emails every week to manage your workload:

Email #1: What you plan on getting done this week
Email #2: What you actually got done this week

Here’s what Email #1 looks like:

Subject: My plan for the week

Jane,

After reviewing my activities here is my plan for the week in order of priority. Let me know if you think I should re-prioritize:

Planned Major Activities for the week

  1. Complete project charter for X Project
  2. Finish the financial analysis report that was started last week
  3. Kick off Project X – requires planning and prep documentation creation. Scheduled for Thursday.

Open items that I will look into, but won’t get finished this week

  1. Coordinate activities for year-end financial close
  2. Research Y product for our shared service team

Let me know if you have any comments. Thank you!

— Robbie

And here’s what Email #2 looks like:

Completed this week

  • Completed X Report
  • Started the planning for the big project
  • Finished the month-end analysis and sent to financial controller for review
  • Created a first draft of the project charter, which is currently being reviewed by Project Manager Z

Open items

  • I have some questions about the start date of Y Project, but should get confirmation by Tuesday morning
  • We need X Report signed off by EOD next Wednesday. Can you follow up with Jane to get this signed off?

That is all for now. Have a great weekend.

— Robbie

This model works even if you’re part of a team that has weekly progress meetings. By managing expectations, you no longer need to work 60+ hours (even if it’s just for the optics). Under-promise and over-deliver.

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Is This Meeting Necessary?

Illustration by Dean Falsify Cook

Illustration by Dean Falsify Cook

Incredible things can happen when great minds meet. Unfortunately, most meetings are anything but great. Organizations are generally reckless about how they use their scarcest resource: people’s time. Research reveals that half the time spent in your nearly 62 meetings every month is wasted – that’s nearly 31 hours of your life. With 73% of workers choosing to do other tasks during meetings, and 91% of workers simply daydreaming through them, the annual salary cost of unnecessary meetings for U.S. businesses is approximately $3.7 billion!

It’s obvious that bad meetings need to stop. But justifying if a meeting is necessary is easier said than done. To help us confidently arrive at the conclusion that a meeting is required, Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of How to Invest Your Time Like Moneyproposes four easy questions:

“Have I thought through this situation?”
If not: Set aside some time with yourself to do some strategic thinking. During that time you can evaluate the scope of the project, the current status, the potential milestones, and lay out a plan of action for making meaningful progress.

“Do I need outside input to make progress?” 
If you find yourself in this place, don’t schedule a meeting; update your to-do list and take action instead.

“Does moving forward require a real-time conversation?”
It’s much more efficient for everyone involved if you send over items that they can look at on their own (while you’re not awkwardly watching them read during an in-person meeting) and then shoot you back feedback.

“Does this necessitate a face-to-face meeting?”
An online chat can help you answer questions quickly, or for more in-depth conversations, scheduling a phone call or video conference can work well. 
By the end of this sequence if you decide that you still need face-to-face, in-person communication, then go right ahead and schedule that meeting. It’s worth noting, however, that the responsibility for protecting people’s time doesn’t fall solely on the shoulders of the one calling the meeting. The onus of asking “is this meeting necessary” should also be on the attendee. The questions posed by Saunders can be flipped as follows:
  1. “Have you fully thought through this situation without me?
  2. “Do you need my specific input to move this forward?”
  3. “Do we need to have this conversation in real-time?”
  4. “Do we need to meet face-to-face, or can we do this this online?”
Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, once wrote, “Just as you would not permit a fellow employee to steal a piece of office equipment, you shouldn’t let anyone walk away with [your] time.” With the right decision-making process, you can dramatically reduce the number of meetings you attend. And when you do eventually have your meetings, they be the necessary types of meetings: ones that promote alignment, unlock creativity, and help you and your team reach the epiphany moment (and get back to work) faster.
Further Reading: Think through in advance how you can make meetings as efficient and effective as possible.

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Nurture Creativity with Silence

By Ale Paul

By Ale Paul

We live in a noisy, hectic, crazy, loud world. Online and off, we’re confronted with a barrage of noise—literal and metaphorical—every minute of every day. It’s exhausting, and potentially damaging to our creative output.

Vyoma Nupur encourages us to incorporate more silence into our lives, for the sake of sanity, productivity, and conflict avoidance:

The best ideas tiptoe to the forefront in times of silence, when the receding tide of turbulent thoughts allow them to materialize into coherence. In this world of relentless noise, silence is a precious commodity, seldom found. All conflicts and struggles of humankind that result from over-communication and ego-fueled arguments may be resolved to a large extent by harnessing the power of the unsaid. If people adopt silence, conversations that they might come to regret lifelong may not happen at all. And since the balm of quiet calms the mind, it would allow actions to be taken with deliberation instead of in the heat of the moment, driven only by untram[m]eled emotion. Though considered unnatural in our daily lives, silence is a state of equilibrium, that should be adopted more so that the overheated, combative whine of busy minds can be replaced with cool contemplation.

When you welcome more silence into your daily routine, for example by beginning your day with a moment of quiet meditation or leaving the headphones off during your walk home from the subway, you make auditory space to hear the world inside your own mind:

[T]he unfathomable depth of the music of silence is only apparent to the quiet intellect—an unmoving abyss undisturbed and free of thought.

The quieter your mind, the better you’ll hear the sounds of introspection.

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No Degree Needed: When Networking Trumps a Second Degree

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by Martin Leon Barreto

Artist Alexa Meade knows that education can’t always be bought. After majoring in political science and setting herself up for a job in politics, she decided to follow her childhood dream of becoming an artist. Instead of continuing her education in art and design, she chose to explore the field and see where it would lead her. However, she did not go about this haphazardly. By forgoing the security of full-time employment, she fully dedicated herself to learning her new craft:

I decided to make being a full-time artist my job. Part of that was not only making artwork, but it was also learning what it meant to be a full-time artist. I went around to all of the art galleries in DC and wrote down names of all of the artists who I liked. I sent them emails saying I liked their work, was interested in hearing about how they became an artist, and would like to know any tips they had for someone starting out. Then I got coffee with dozens of people who gave me amazing advice. I quickly learned things that would have taken me years to figure out otherwise.

Instead of solely relying on formal education, Meade encourages us to seek out aspirational individuals within our own industries.

The first step is to research what others are doing and create a list of those who get you excited to be in your line of work. Find those who have achieved the same level and type of success that you are currently working towards. This can be working with a certain type of client, someone who has amazing work/life balance, or has started their own studio – whatever you are striving towards. Once you have your list, contact them. 

According to researchers at the Harvard University Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab, people love talking about their own experiences because it simply feels good. Why not take advantage of that vanity? There is so much to be learned from those who have already gone through what you are currently experiencing. Maybe they have a trick for getting promoted, or insider secrets about the industry that you never would have learned in school. Sometimes an informal education can be attained for the price of a cup of coffee.

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How to Let a Client Know If You’re Overwhelmed

By Ben O'Brien

By Ben O’Brien

As a creative professional, one of the primary benefits that you offer your client is expanded capacity. In exchange for your billings, the client leverages your time, energy, and attention to accomplish more than they could’ve done by themselves.

More often than not, however, a client doesn’t have a complete sense of how much is on your plate before requesting additional work. Especially if you’re a freelancer or have a small shop, it’s important that you learn how to respectful inform the client that you’re at capacity (and potentially use the opportunity to expand your operation).

When asked to add more to your plate, author and communication expert Alexandra Franzen suggests using the following script: 

Hey! Thanks for [writing / stopping by].

I can definitely help you with this. But first, let’s talk about the other items that I’m currently working on for you.

Right now I’m working on: [list them in order].

If we add this new piece to the list, I’ll need to bill you for an additional [$$$].

It also means that the timeline we initially agreed upon will need to shift a bit. [describe the new dates, timing, etc]

Are you OK with the additional cost and new timeline?

If so, [tell me / write back to say]: “Green light! Go!” and I’ll be off to the races like FloJo at the Olympic Games.

Save this template. If you’re good at what you do – and you are – you’re going to need it.

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You’ve Got 5 Seconds to Get What You Really Want

By Yevgeniy Moskalev via Behance

By Yevgeniy Moskalev via Behance

 Whatever it is you want in your life or career, you could get it if you were able to combat the excuses you keep telling yourself. Mel Robbins, author of Stop Saying You’re Fine,  explains the roadblocks we set up for ourselves:

“That thing you have up here [in your head]… you could walk into a bookstore right now and buy at least 10 books written by credentialed experts on how the hell to do it. You could Google it, and you could probably find at least a thousand blogs documenting the step by step by step transformation that somebody else is already doing… you can just walk in their footsteps, so why don’t you have what you want when you have all the information you need?”

The culprit holding us back from living our dreams and fulfilling our goals? The word fine.”

We use the word “fine” as a crutch against anything new or even slightly intimidating. For example, when confronted with the uncomfortableness of going to the gym we might say we’re “fine,” even though we really want to lose a few pounds. When confronted with the opportunity to attend a local meet up, to try an idea out, to speak up in a meeting, or to try something new, we simply say we don’t need to take a risk because, really, we’re “fine.”

But we’re not fine. Fine is a lie, and we don’t have to accept it every time we feel unmotivated. Robbins quotes a statistic on the odds of you (or I) having been born: 1 in 400,000,000,000. She states: “You have life changing ideas for a reason, and it’s not to torture yourself. You were born not to be just fine.”

So what do we do? To overcome habitually using the excuse of telling ourselves we’re fine, Robbins points us to “activation energy.” Activation energy is a chemistry term which means the minimum amount of energy that must be put into something in order for there to be a sustained action.

If you’ve ever tried getting out of bed in the morning earlier than usual, for example, you’ll undoubtedly know how difficult it can be to do. You hit the snooze button when the alarm goes off and right away you know there’s no chance you’ll be getting up that early. In that moment—when you hit snooze—you’ve subconsciously told yourself it’s “fine” to sleep in just a few more minutes (which, if you’re anything like me, you repeat numerous times until you’re late for work). Conversely, getting out of bed the moment the alarm goes off gives you a small amount of energy that is typically enough to propel you forward through the morning routine. That decisive moment of actually getting out of bed when the alarm goes off is activation energy.

Robbins says our window for using activation energy—to get out of bed, go to the gym, talk to an interesting stranger we see, or otherwise get what we want—is remarkably short. “If you have an impulse to do something, you have five seconds to follow through however you can,” she says. Five seconds before our idea, dream, or opportunity, dies.

The next time you have an idea, don’t try to think it out or justify: take action immediately. Write it down, create a plan, grab a friend and tell them about it, and follow through before five seconds passes.

[Watch Robbin's full (21 min) TEDxSF talk right here.]

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