2 Productivity-Boosting Mental Jumpstarters

Photo by Fernando Jorge on Unsplash (modified)

Thoughts to think when you feel stuck

I’ve been living in leadership books these past few months, and they’ve given me all kinds of wonderful insights and fresh perspectives. Each one seems to be more enjoyable than the last.

Every day seems to be rife with opportunities to apply what I’ve learned, too. I feel like a leadership book version of Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, witnessing manifestations of these sacred texts’ teachings in the air around me.

There’s no doubt, these books have made me a better, more thoughtful leader, but there’s a pair of statements that have lingered in my brain that have had a profound positive impact on my own productivity. I don’t think of myself as much of a mantra person, but I’m hit with situations daily that trigger these affirmations to playback in my head — and they help.

Image from The Hangover via meme-arsenal

In addition to improving my own personal productivity, they’ve also been useful tools for mentoring and coaching. We all get stuck, we all need a little motivation sometimes, and we all feel frustrated about things happening — or not happening — around us.

Best served with an eyes-closed cleansing breath, these mantras will help you fight through those moments of stagnation, find a goal, and push to make it happen.


One important thing each day

I can’t remember what I did yesterday, and I’m not sure what I’ll do today.

We’ve all given that update, right? You know, when you show up to your team’s daily status meeting a little underprepared and struggle to articulate what meaningful progress you made or what you plan to do next. I’ve certainly been in that boat — more times than I care to admit.

That’s what I love about this first mantra. It addresses both parts of the feelsbad daily status report.

It’s inspired by the book A Sense of Urgency by John P. Kotter. Kotter explains that having a sense of urgency doesn’t mean you’re always running around creating a flurry of activity. Rather, it’s having a goal and making consistent progress toward achieving it without the stressful, frantic flurry. He writes the following:

With an attitude of true urgency, you try to accomplish something important each day, never leaving yourself with a heart-attack-producing task of running one thousand miles in the last week of the race.

This is my go-to self-talk when I catch myself spinning on tasks but accomplishing nothing, like when I’m flipping between email and Slack, searching for something new begging for my attention. That’s not a productive way to work. It’s entirely reactive and, at best, keeping up. It’s certainly not a mode that will lead to much progress.

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

In those moments, I take a breath and think, “One important thing each day. What’s something important I can do?”

This helps me pause, take inventory of everything that needs to be done, and determine what’s actionable. When done at the beginning of my day, it pushes me to prioritize and set immediate-term goals. It can also help with personal or team roadblocks by shedding light on instances where the most important thing can’t be done.

Completing a meaningful task each day gives you a place to hang your hat. No matter what else happens, you accomplished that one important thing. You set a goal and achieved it, and you’ll remember it when it’s time to give your update in the team’s daily status meeting.


Be the leader you wish you had

Toward the end of last year, I watched Simon Sinek lecture about his then-upcoming book Leaders Eat Last. During Q&A at the end of the lecture, a woman asked, “If you find yourself in a place that you consider unsafe, is your best strategy to exit?”

This was his response:

Absolutely not. The best strategy is to step up. The best strategy is to be the leader you wish you had. The best strategy is to find someone you trust and say, “We have each other; let’s look after each other, but let’s also commit to looking after everybody else.”

He explains how toxic leaders use isolation and fear to control groups, but it’s always the group that ultimately holds power. The group controls the leader.

Sinek speaks about it in the context of toppling a dictator, but I find it to be applicable in many non-authoritarian situations, too. It’s easy for friends and colleagues to complain about what’s swirling around them, and it’s in those moments when the line creeps into my head: be the leader you wish you had.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

When I think of these words, I feel empowered to do the right thing. I’m permitting myself to step outside the bounds of my role for the good of myself, my team, or my company. Energy spent on complaining is redirected toward solving. Instead of being frustrated about what isn’t happening, I take actions to help make it the way I believe it should be.

Think about this when you find yourself frustrated. Who could make it better? What do you wish they’d do? What would happen if you did that thing? What else can you do to address it yourself? Be the leader you wish you had.


Put ’em together, what d’ya have?

These two mantras are both pretty good when used independently, but they get really powerful when combined. Like, power-level-over-9000 powerful. It’s setting them up and knocking them down. It’s taking names and kicking ass.

“One important thing each day” forces you to lock-in on a target, and “be the leader you wish you had” permits you to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

It’s taking solution-oriented to the next level because you’re not just coming up with solutions; you’re implementing them. You’re making problems go away. (Hey! Common sense here. Make sure you keep the people that matter in the loop in your decision-making. Feeling empowered is good; recklessly creating controversy isn’t. You’re trying to be productive, not stage a coup. Usually.)

Put yourself in your boss’s shoes, or think about what your team will say. Nobody’s going to complain about how you do important things, like, every day. They won’t be disappointed that you identify solutions and work through roadblocks instead of sitting on problems until the next team meeting.

In fact, it’s going to be the opposite. Your boss will be very excited about that level of proactivity, and the team’s going to notice when you show up every day with tales of glory and meaty contribution.

Recognize when you’re unproductive and lack direction. One important thing each day.

Don’t wait when you know the answer, and don’t be penalized for others’ inactions. Be the leader you wish you had.


This article was originally published on ILLUMINATION on February 16, 2021.


Interested in learning more? Be sure to give the books mentioned in this article a read! Note that I use affiliate links when linking to products on Amazon. Thank you for your support!

How I Learned to Be More Decisive and Stop Trying to Please Everyone

Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo on Unsplash

CONFESSIONS OF A CONSENSUS-SEEKER

I used to think my ability to get everybody to agree was a strength. I have strong opinions, I’m competitive, and it’s not enough to have my opponent concede when debating a topic. I need them to agree with me — to believe what I believe. This served me well early in my career, and my fiery conviction and the resulting success allowed me to rise into leadership positions.

Honestly, even as a team lead this approach worked pretty well. Looking back, I think the turning point was when I became the manager of two teams. That’s when I no longer had the capacity to be “in it” with the team on every assignment. That’s when I hit a wall with my consensus-seeking.


The Deadliest Slide at the Playground

As a team lead, I did the best I could. Of course, I didn’t really know what I was doing and was mostly making it up as I went. That’s not to say I didn’t try or that I did a bad job. It’s just that I’m a learn-by-doing sort of person, so even though I’d read and done research on what it meant to be a good boss, it took some time and experience for concepts to set in.

The pattern continued as I moved into management. I wanted to be a “manager of the people” — to empower the team, and to give them a voice and sense of ownership. But they didn’t always agree among themselves about what needed to be done or how to do it. (Who’da guessed?) On top of that, I had my own opinions about what was best. This is where consensus-seeking started to be a problem.

The team would go on and on about a problem and then, just as they’d be coming to a conclusion, I’d weigh in with my 2 cents and reset the whole conversation. You know the big slide in the board game Chutes and Ladders? The one right toward the end that basically takes you back to the beginning? It was kinda like that.

And, because I needed that consensus, I’d keep the debate going as long as people continued to disagree. I just felt like, if we could all understand each other’s perspectives, we could find a solution we all agreed on.

I knew it was a problem. I could feel the team spinning, and we were spending more time coming up with plans than it would take to execute them. Feedback from the team provided clear supporting evidence in my performance reviews, too.

Could be more decisive. It’s good to listen, but sometimes the team just needs someone to choose. (paraphrasing)

Message received. I wasn’t surprised, though. I knew it was coming, but it still stung a little to be forced to acknowledge my shortcoming in a more official way.


Melancholy and the Infinite Debate

Analysis paralysis was certainly a key problem caused by my consensus-seeking. We’d talk and talk and talk about a topic or design, then reserve ourselves to continue the discussion in the next meeting. It was exhausting.

But, having no decision and pressure to make progress, the team would soldier on, with fatigue from the endless debate taking its toll. Even if it was my idea that “won,” it didn’t feel like winning. My effort to make everybody happy had done the opposite — everyone was miserable!

That gave way to the second major issue: lack of commitment. With so much discussion, people would lose track of what we were even trying to accomplish. Or, worse, they’d stop caring. I was mentally beating them into submission, and they just wanted it to end.

Team members would shake their heads and ask, “So, what are we doing?” They had no energy and just wanted to get on with it. It’s a real feelsbad moment to look into the defeated eyes of your team and explain that you’re just going to do the thing that you all talked about so long ago.


Can we all agree that consensus is horrible?

My a-ha moment came while reading Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The main character, Kathryn, is speaking and says the following:

“Consensus is horrible. I mean, if everyone really agrees on something and consensus comes about quickly and naturally, well that’s terrific. But that isn’t how it usually works, and so consensus becomes an attempt to please everyone.”

It feels dumb and obvious, but I literally stopped and thought, Oh no. That was it, that was my problem. I continued reading.

“…some teams get paralyzed by their need for complete agreement, and their inability to move beyond debate.”

Yep, that was us. I was worried that people would be upset by not having their idea picked, so instead, I chose to pummel them into having the same idea. Reading about my own behavior in the context of the book was reassuring, to know that the bad thing I was doing was prolific enough to be addressed in a novel about the bad things we do. Still, not a great feeling to know that I had stepped into a common pitfall.

I always tell my teams that I’d rather have a problem we know the solution to than one we don’t, though, and this was one of those cases.

In the same chapter, another character speaks up about “disagree and commit” which is a popular idea that’s been written and talked about by many people, including Jeff Bezos. The concept is simple: it’s okay to disagree, but once the decision is made, everyone commits to it.

Certainly, that’s the philosophy I need to embrace, I thought. The hard part about decision-making was the fear of being wrong. I needed consensus because, if we all agreed and were wrong, we’d be wrong together. I didn’t want to force my decision on the team to have it rubbed in my face later by bitter and spiteful colleagues.

Because they’d be bitter and spiteful… Right?


A Breathtaking Detour

Making decisions requires a constructive environment filled with trust and communication, and my consensus-seeking didn’t provide that. I felt like we needed to talk things through because people would be upset if we didn’t do it their way. And it wore them down. Instead of looking for the best solution, they were looking for a way out.

However, it turns people don’t need to get their way to be happy. They need to feel heard. Having a voice makes us feel safe, like we’re in control. We want to know that if we call out danger, the team will steer away from it. Similarly, if we know a safe path, the whole team benefits from taking it.

Imagine you have plans for dinner at a restaurant with a friend. You and your friend have many choices for how to get there. You can take highways or backroads. You can drive yourselves or take public transportation. You can go separately or together. There are a few tradeoffs with each decision, but for the most part, they’re inconsequential.

Now, let’s say you know about some construction on one of the roads. You tell your friend to avoid that route because of significant delays, but they take it anyway and show up super late. You’d probably be upset, right?

Conversely, if they show up on time, you probably don’t care which specific path they took to get there. Maybe the same construction takes them through a scenic part of town, so your friend left early to enjoy it. You wouldn’t mind that they ignored your advice. It wouldn’t prevent you from enjoying each other’s company and having a good time — it might even give you something to talk about!

It’s the same with most team decisions. If you can agree on what you’re trying to accomplish, listen to everybody’s input, and make a reasonable decision, it doesn’t usually matter which specific path is chosen. What matters is that you get to where you’re going.


The Destination vs. The Journey

We’ve all heard the popular adage about road trips: it’s about the journey, not the destination. The idea is that the experiences you’ll have on the way to your destination will outweigh the ones you’ll have once you arrive. The point of these sorts of trips is usually to have experiences, and the journey is long and thus provides many experiences, so there’s truth to the statement.

When you have several options to choose from, you’ll often find yourself in one of two buckets. Choices will be equal or have tradeoffs. When all things are equal, it’s like meeting your friend at a restaurant. It probably doesn’t matter. Pick and move on. Most decisions have tradeoffs with multiple factors being influenced to different degrees, though, and that’s what makes them so tricky.

The reason they’re difficult is that people have different values. The best decision for me is different than the best decision for someone else, and neither of us is wrong — we just have different values. For example, one of us may value speed to market whereas the other values robustness of features. This is sort of a destination-vs-journeyquestion all in itself! Is it better to reach your destination quickly to benefit from more time or go a bit slower and arrive more prepared?

The question to ask yourself is, what are you trying to accomplish? This is why it’s so important for leaders and stakeholders to set goals and priorities: to enable the team to make decisions.

But, even if all that fails, there’s some good news. In the absence of a clear winner, you’re somewhat back to the all-things-equal scenario. There is no right or wrong when the deciding factor is subjectivity, so choose and move on.


The only losing move is not to choose.

As a former consensus-seeker, I hope I’ve said enough to convince you — to make you believe — that consensus-seeking is bad.

The two major problems with consensus-seeking are time lost and lack of commitment. You sacrifice time with endless discussion, and with no decision, there’s nothing to commit to.

For that reason, any decision is better than no decision, even if it proves to be the wrong choice. Being wrong is often more efficient than trying to ensure you’re right, and conducting marathon debates won’t save you from mistakes, anyway.

Consensus is painful, and you don’t need it. What you do need is commitment. Seeking consensus will drain energy and morale whereas listening and incorporating feedback will build trust. When the team trusts you, they’ll support your decisions, and that’s how you get commitment.

Energy saved by skipping analysis paralysis now gets applied toward the commitment, and a positive cycle begins. Commitment and energy lead to results. Results earn trust and influence, which then get applied to the next round of decisions.

Making decisions is more important than the decisions themselves. Know what you’re trying to achieve, listen to your team, and make a decision. Everyone will be happier and more productive for it.


This article was originally published in The Ascent on January 5, 2021.

Conference Call Less, Smile More

How to keep engaged with your team when you can’t stomach another #$@!ing conference call

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Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash

It’s 2021. The offices are closed, and you’re working from home. It’s 8:59 am, and in 1 minute, your next day of conference calls begins. And you just don’t want to do it. <expletive>.

It’s okay. We’ve all been there, so much so that the idea of “no meeting days/weeks” is gaining in popularity. If you can get your team and boss to buy-in, that’s probably the best way to give everyone a much-needed break. That’s not always an option, though, and even if it is, it’s something that needs to be scheduled and coordinated with the team. What if you need relief today?

The bad news is that you can’t ditch your team entirely; you need them, and they need you. However, take it from me — a grizzled work-from-home vet — there are ways to isolate yourself and fight call fatigue without completely ghosting your coworkers.

That last point’s worth repeating: don’t just disappear. When you go dark, your boss and teammates start to question your contributions and effort, and the more you do it, the worse it gets. Before you know it, you’re on the downward spiral of broken trust and poor performance. It’s much better to wrestle this beast out in the open, where everybody can see, and leave no question about your commitment and dedication — but, just, for the love of god, not on a video call.

Know thy tools

The first thing you need to do is assess what’s available in your toolkit. How does your team communicate? Most teams have a few different ways. Mine, for example, uses Slack and Teams in addition to everyone’s good friend, email.

In addition to those pure communication tools, you’ve probably got some collaborative tools, too, like Jira or SharePoint or Miro or Asana. You know, the apps you use to actually get things done? Yea, those. The reason these apps are so popular is because they make sharing & collaboration easy.

Here’s the secret with these tools, though. If you’re going to use them in lieu of actually talking to the people you work with, you need to use ‘em, like, extra. Catching up on email? Post a message. Writing a report? Share it. Taking a bathroom break? Okay, keep that one to yourself… But, updating those revenue projections? Shout it out! It doesn’t need to be every 5 minutes, but it should be enough so that there’s no question about whether or not you’re there or what you’re working on.

Maintaining this level of visibility isn’t just so people know you’re working — it also lets the team know you’re available for them. That’s half of what makes all these calls and meetings necessary. You know things! And people need to suck those things that you know out of your brain in order to do their jobs. You might be loving life and having the most productive solo day you’ve ever had, but if three people are stuck on a call trying to figure out what they know you know because they think you’re unavailable, it’s not going to reflect well on you.

Honor your commitments

We were on a break.

— Ross Geller

Just because you’re on a break doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want. Making all that noise about the things you’re doing won’t mean much to your team if you don’t deliver. You’re exhausted. You don’t want to talk. That’s okay, but it’s going to take a little extra work on your part to get the same results.

A critical part of honoring commitments is having some commitments. This goes hand-in-hand with my previous point of over-communicating and keeping visibility high, but it requires a little planning and forethought. Lay out the next few things you plan on doing so the team can coordinate and avoid duplicate effort.

Don’t be afraid to be a little ambitious with your goals, too. You’re on a team that’s trying to accomplish important things. Don’t phone it in while you’re… not phoning in — sign up for something meaningful.

With a few commitments in hand, it’s time to demonstrate your worth. I’ve got no problem with anybody on my team working whatever hours they want when they get their work done — so get your work done. And you better double and triple check it, too, because you lose some some quality safety nets when you fly solo. The goal is to make sure nobody has anything to complain about, so you need to make sure you catch the problems that would’ve been caught by doing the same work collaboratively with the folks you don’t want to talk to.

The key word here is “dependability.” You want the team to know that when you take an assignment into your bunker, they don’t need to worry. They can check it off the list. They’ve called in the closer, and you’ll find a way to get it done.

End of day wrap-up

Before you sign off for the day, send a status update to the team. You’ve been keeping your visibility high, so everybody knows what you’ve been up to, and you’ve put a little extra elbow grease on your deliverables to make sure quality is top-notch. Now it’s time to wrap-up all that ass you’ve kicked with a big, beautiful bow on top.

The end-of-day update is important and valuable for several reasons. The team knows you’ve been active but stating what you’ve completed shows them that you actually achieved things, too. It’s a chance for you to punctuate your effort and commitment. Those meaningful things you signed up for earlier? Yea, they’re done.

The status update sends the message that you worked hard to accomplish things for the team. It took you a little longer, but you got it done — and then you cared enough to summarize the journey. This is a great chance to showcase some leadership skills and sense of urgency, too. What needs to happen next? Who’s responsible? Make some callouts to help ensure that none of the momentum you’ve created will be lost.

Conclusion

Being on conference calls all day, every day is just plain exhausting. We all need a break, but the collaboration that pushes us to keep having them is important and valuable — it can’t be ignored. The answer to call fatigue is not less communication but different communication.

These “tips” are great advice for anybody that wants to be more effective, whether you’re dodging your co-workers in meetings and conference calls or not. Similarly, if you don’t do these things, it will ruin your team. People won’t trust you to complete your work. They won’t try to collaborate because it’s easier not to. They’ll resent you for not pulling your weight.

The stakes are a little higher when you’re working asynchronously, though, because you’re not “in the room” to defend yourself against misperception. You can’t explain why something took 3x longer than everyone thought it would or that you didn’t get to one thing because another, more important task cropped up.

None of this is hard, though; it just requires thoughtfulness and awareness. Communication and collaboration. Visibility and transparency. You can follow the same basic formula that’s often prescribed for presentations and writing: say what you’re going to do, do it, then say what you did. This keeps you highly-visible and transparent while also being present and available for the team. Commitment and accountability ensure that you produce results, and the end-of-day report is the cherry on top, helping everyone to build on your success.


This article was originally published in ILLUMINATION on November 25, 2020.