There are many things that enable my success in the office. It’s not just technology, time management, or working with bright people. And it’s not all about keeping an upbeat attitude, healthy lifestyle, or positive relationship with coworkers. These are all HUGELY important. But, for the sake of this article today, I’m going to focus on five things that I try to do each day to ensure I have success in the office. Take each one on its own and you’re doing well, but master all five and you’re headed for success.
1. Eat the frog
Mark Twain said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
From a business perspective, this great quote really hits home. Look at your to-do list and find the item you’ve been dreading most. Perhaps it’s difficult, confusing, or you have just been avoiding it. That’s your frog. Do it. Get that task done (or if it’s a huge project, get it started). Once you eat that frog, the rest of your day will be looking good. You’ll feel great too; relieved that you finally got around to that task that’s been a chip on your shoulder.
2. Minimize distractions
Distractions are everywhere. Personal email, stock quotes, cat videos, instant messenger, this blog post, phone calls, telemarketers, vendor solicitations, eBay, online dating, your kids, food, TV, your office mates… The list goes on forever. Odds are that you have experienced a few distractions on this list. But, you probably don’t realize how much of a distraction they are until you eliminate them (don’t eliminate your kids though, that’s a bad idea). Instead, focus on the small distractions that often add up to big deals.
For example, install a plug-in on your browser which tracks how much time you spend on non-work-related websites. You’ll be really surprised! Do you really need to read about Kim Kardashian’s baby name during work hours? You’ll never get that five minutes back! Then, close your browser and make a pledge that you won’t go to those sites until you eat your frog, or until your lunch break, or maybe never? Use those sites as a reward for when you finish your work.
I hate instant messenger and pretty much all forms of phones. They are interruptions. Studies show us that each time you get interrupted, it takes you some time to refocus and catch back up to where you left off. So constantly switching between activities (like doing your work, replying to an email and checking IM), leads to lower productivity and often lower quality work. My staff relies upon IM and phone though, so I have to accommodate these technologies. To do so, I carve out some time during each day where I turn the technology off so I can eat the frog and accomplish some of my work efficiently. When I’m feeling caught up and on track, I turn the technology back on. If it’s an emergency (and it almost never is), my team knows how to contact me.
3. Organize until it hurts
I’m well known for being almost too organized (I don’t think such a thing exists, but my wife and co-workers may beg to differ). If you asked me to show you the 14th email I sent when I joined American Public University System over four years ago, I could do that in a matter of seconds. Or, if I need to retrieve an obscure email thread about project X with so-and-so, I can do that in just a few clicks.
The point is, I’m organized. My email has folders and sub-folders; and my laptop’s file system matches with similarly named folders. As every email comes and goes and every file is named and saved, I make sure I apply my organizational system to this content in real-time and file the content appropriately and immediately. This is important, because it’s not realistic to file 5,000 emails after they’ve sat around for months. Create to-do folders and file the rest away for reference. My staff often jokes about how I only have half a dozen or so emails in my inbox. But I can tell you this – when it comes to email, I can power through hundreds of emails per day and I don’t even need to have Outlook running all day to do so.
That leads me to another point related to #2. It’s okay to turn off email for a couple hours a day in most cases. This can help you focus on other more important projects.
4. Take breaks
When I work in my office, taking a break is simple. I usually get up from my desk and take a quick lap around the office. Sometimes that involves visiting the kitchen for a snack; other times I may visit a co-worker for a quick project update. In some cases I’ll check a news site to get my headlines or stock quotes. A couple minutes of decompressing can help you relax, clear your mind, and recover some energy. I believe you should do this at least once per hour for a few minutes.
Some people, including myself, have found that stretching or doing some yoga moves helps quite a bit. Whatever it is you do for “fun”, take a few minutes and do it as a break. And if you are in a long meeting (more than 60 minutes), make sure you incorporate breaks too.
5. Create a system for managing deliverables
I manage a team of ten. We have a lot of concurrent projects (over 100). So that means there are hundreds of items on my to-do list, and hundreds on everyone else’s. That’s a lot to keep track of; which means there’s a lot that can fall through the cracks. One of the things I do to keep track of the really small stuff (such as, “hey so-and-so, please send me the file for project X”), is to use Microsoft Outlook “tasks”.
When I send an email request, I can flag it as a task which adds it to my Outlook to-do list and I can set a reminder for the recipient and a reminder for myself to follow back up. Best yet, the task is linked to the email thread, so I can always review the details. I can even categorize tasks for further organization, marking things by project or priority. Then, I make it a habit of checking the list each day to see what’s on my list that I need to prepare to complete; or what I’m waiting on… and I can send people reminders if needed. It’s a great way to keep track of the little things and can also be a great way of creating a digital to-do list, replacing that good ‘ole paper and pen (which I still use in conjunction with Outlook).
In closing, it’s important to remember that workplace productivity improvements are well within our reach. We just have to deconstruct our days to understand the areas that are pulling us away from doing better. Success isn’t defined solely by the five things I’ve mentioned here. There are many ingredients; some that cannot be easily turned on or off. But, if we put forth a reasonable effort, we can begin to climb out of the office doldrums and distractions.
Hopefully, you’re reading this on a break after eating your frog. If not, close your browser and tackle that to-do list!