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831: How to Manage Multiple Projects without the Overwhelm with Elizabeth Harrin

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Elizabeth Harrin lays out the five critical steps to making the management of multiple projects more manageable.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The easiest way to make managing multiple projects manageable
  2. How to ensure follow through when you’re not the manager
  3. How to strike the right balance between time, cost, and quality

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Harrin teaches people how to juggle multiple projects so they can meet stakeholders’ expectations without working extra hours. She is a project management practitioner, trainer, mentor and founder of RebelsGuideToPM.com. 

An author of seven project management books, Elizabeth prides herself on her straight-talking, real-world advice for project managers. She uses her twenty years’ experience doing the job to help people deliver better quality results whilst ditching the burnout through her community membership programme, Project Management Rebels.

Resources Mentioned

Elizabeth Harrin Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Elizabeth, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Elizabeth Harrin
Hello. Thank you for having me on the show.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom but, first, I think we need to hear a little bit about your ritual involving the song “Firework.” What’s the story here? 

Elizabeth Harrin
Well, when I go live on a video or something like that, I feel like I need to get into the zone. And having that break between just doing my emails or whatever I was doing before, and focusing on showing up and being present in the moment, I do that with music. So, I play a song and I just got stuck on Katy Perry’s, so I play that to get into the right frame of mind before going live and talking to people.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, “Firework” is actually a really fun tune, and I love the metaphor at the beginning, like, “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?”

Elizabeth Harrin
Absolutely. Drifting around, isn’t that what every project manager feels like at the beginning of a new piece of work, and you have got no idea what you’re supposed to be doing?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Elizabeth, you’re a master of the segue and tying it together. All right. Well, I want to hear a little bit about Managing Multiple Projects. You’ve written the book on it. Could you kick us off with a particularly surprising or counterintuitive or extra-fascinating discovery you’ve made when it comes to managing multiple projects?

Elizabeth Harrin
I think one of the things that surprised me was I did a survey to get some numbers, a bit of research for the book, and most people are managing between two and five projects, and that doesn’t sound like very many, but having to constantly switch between work does create that overhead, and workload is the biggest cause of burnout. So, if you can’t manage that workload effectively and switch between all things you’re juggling, it can be really quite difficult.

And the most surprising thing for me about that survey, and the results I got back when I was interviewing people for the book, was how sad it is that people are feeling so unhappy about the work that they do. And the verbatim comments were, just shocked me that people show up to work, they want to do the best that they can, and they’re not in environments where they can do that.

And I felt that that was something that we need to change in the world because we all need to be happy at work. We spend so much time there, it’s not worth doing things that we don’t enjoy.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Elizabeth, that is powerful, and thank you for sharing that. That really does connect emotionally in terms of overwhelm, burnout, sadness. When you say verbatim comments, are there a couple that have lodged into your brain and haunt you, that you could share to tee up just what we might be able to escape here?

Elizabeth Harrin
There was a comment from a woman called Kimberly, and she wrote, “I work in a fast-food project management environment that expects a sit-down service.” And I thought, “Don’t we all?” So many people must feel that they’re in environments where you want to do the best quality work you can, and actually it’s got to be a quick turnaround. There has to be speed and shortcuts, and we have to apply all these hacks just to get through the day because we don’t have the time to focus on the people that matter and the work that matters.

And so, that analogy about feeling like you’re in a fast-food environment but all your customers and the work that you want to be able to deliver, you won’t be able to provide this five-star dining service. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And it’s really funny, and I have felt both of those work desires. Sometimes it is a blast to just shred through a lot of stuff at medium quality and high speed, and just enjoy the thrill ride, like, “Woohoo! Look at all these things checked off and out the door. That’s really cool.” And other times, you really do want to be, I don’t know, sort of like an artisanal, craftsmanship, bespoke, excellence, maximum beauty, maximum quality, and what’s challenging is often you don’t get to choose.

Elizabeth Harrin
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“That might be your mood but what’s required is this.” And if they require both speed and excellence at the same time, yeah, that’s a tricky one.

Elizabeth Harrin
It’s a tricky one, and people end up working longer hours. That was certainly my experience when I went back to work after maternity leave and was in this situation where I was managing multiple projects myself. My choices were do things less good, to a less quality standard, or work longer hours. And neither of them really appealed to me in terms of wanting to be the best professional that I could be and do good things in my career. So, I had to start rethinking what work meant and how I could work more productively because the tools I had only gave me those two choices, and that wasn’t good enough.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s powerful and it sounds like some of your thoughts made it into your book, Managing Multiple Projects: How Project Managers Can Balance Priorities, Manage Expectations and Increase Productivity. If you could give us the key thesis or big idea behind the book, what is it?

Elizabeth Harrin
I’ve put together a five-part model that helps people break down their work, structure it differently, and then keep all their balls in the air. Although, the thing I would say is that no book will ever tell you there’s a one-size solution that will fit every need, so it’s written very much from a perspective of, “Here’s a ton of different tools and techniques that you could try. Test them out in your work environment. Find what fits your working style,” because everyone is different, aren’t they? And everyone’s work environment is different. But, broadly, with a few tweaks, hopefully, you can make the work a little bit more manageable.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds exciting. Could you share with us a case study or a particularly inspiring story example of someone who was able to upgrade their managing multiple projects game to see great results?

Elizabeth Harrin
Yes, I can. I do a lot of mentoring as well, so a lot of the people I talk to will pick and choose a couple of different things to apply. I can give you my own example and then I can share some examples from other people. The thing that made the biggest difference for me is the first of those five steps, which is working out what’s in your personal portfolio. So, what was the totality of my workload? Because I had three or four projects that I was managing, but also, I was mentoring my colleagues, I was organizing events at work, I was having to turn up and deputize for my manager at different meetings.

And all the other things, they never really make it into your mental to-do list because they’re the stuff you jot down on a Post It note and you never find the time, really, to put those on a project schedule or anything. They’re just expectations. So, when I had a complete picture of all the things I was responsible for, I then got a big shock about how many hours that actually equated to within a week, and being able to then have an intelligent conversation with my manager, and also to plan my own time, it became a lot easier because I had full visibility.

And I think that’s something that I know from teaching about managing multiple projects, that other people have take away as well, just that realization of all the extra things that we’re expected to do, whether it’s time sheets, or finance reporting, or organizing a party for the end of the year celebrations, whatever it is, all of those things take time away from us being able to deliver the main part of our job, the projects that we’re working on.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And I’m thinking about mandatory trainings, I’m thinking about the sort of meetings, I’m thinking about email. Email is tricky because, on the one hand, are these emails about your projects. Well, then I guess, in a way, that time might get counted. Or, are the emails about everything else from the CFO and the CEO and this and that cross-functional group here and there.

Elizabeth Harrin
Yes, team meetings, briefing your colleagues, all that kind of stuff. So, that personal portfolio step was really helpful for me. And one of the other things that I talk about in the book is dependency management. So, how do you work out how your work interacts with other people’s work, and how each of your projects interact with each other?

And I can tell you about Robert, who told me that once he’d planned out those different dependencies between his workload, he felt that he already knew that in his head. But having plotted it out and writing it down in a matrix, he could then use that as a communication tool to help other people in the department understand how their work impacted other people.

And that was valuable then because he could use that to help people talk about, “When does their work need to be done? What’s going to happen if it’s late? This is the implications for these people or this team or that project.” And they could talk about how they could help each other, make sure all of those expectations were met.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, lovely. That is handy. And so, just like a snazzy chart graph, flowchart, bit of graphical loveliness?

Elizabeth Harrin
You could do it that way. I just wrote it in a spreadsheet. I’m very good at simple things. So, the spreadsheet is a list of all my projects, a list of all my other responsibilities, a list of the way that my work interacts with other people’s work. The way that we did the dependency matrix was we had a list of projects down the side, and then a list of the same projects across the top.

And where they met, we could say, “Well, does this project have anything to do with that? Does this piece of work have anything to do with that team?” And you could sort of write in the box, “Yes, we need to be aware of this,” or, “Yes, we have to do that before this one.”

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Well, those are handy right off the bat. And could you share, when it comes to managing multiple projects, there are many books and works and tools and trainings on project management, and your corner of the project management universe, managing multiple projects, is distinctive. Can you share with us, what are some of the key differences, distinctions about the game when you’re managing multiple projects versus one super project?

Elizabeth Harrin
I think the biggest challenge for me is having different stakeholders, more stakeholders. If you’re managing a big gigantic project and it’s taking up all of your workload, then you’ve probably got quite good relationships with the people that you work with because you’re with them every day, working with them every day. The team might be large, and I’m not saying there’s not a lot of people and relationships to manage, but there’s one common goal that you’re all working towards, which is delivering the project, and you’ve probably got experience of working with them on a regular basis.

Now, let’s say you’re managing four projects. That’s four potentially quite separate, different teams, each of who want a piece of you at some point in the week, and you’ve got to switch between managing their expectations about how important their work is because not all projects are the same level of importance. Someone has to work on the stuff that’s low importance. And it might be that someone wants more of your time than you can actually give because you’ve got other things to do in your week as well.

So, I think those relationships are probably the hardest thing and the most different thing about managing multiple strands of work rather than just managing one. And that could be managing four different clients. If you’re in a client-facing role, maybe you’ve got four different clients, maybe you’ve got four different internal projects but, ultimately, the more people you have to work with, the harder, I think, the job becomes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then, now could you share with us, you mentioned at the very beginning that burnout, sadness, overwhelm stuff, do you have any strategies, specifically, that are targeted toward the internal game, our emotional landscape?

Elizabeth Harrin
I would say having boundaries is probably the most important thing because often, when people give us work to do, there is the expectation that we have the time to do it. And because we are good employees, and we don’t want to rock the boat, we say, “Yes, of course, I can take on that extra piece of work. When would you like it done by?”

And I think having mental boundaries around, “How do you accept new pieces of work when it’s within your gift to be able to do that?” Are you going to make the point about saying, “Well, I can do this but it will mean I’ll have to stop doing something else. I can do this but not by tomorrow because I’m working on something else. I can get it to you by Friday. Is that okay?”

And having that kind of sense of protecting your own time and your own mental health so that you’re not saying, “Yes, I can do everything, of course. Just lay it on me, and I’m just going to stay up till midnight and be at my keyboard all night.” By being aware of what your own limitations are and how many hours you’ve got available, what else you’ve got going on, planning out the next couple of weeks, you can start to think about, “If I say yes to this, and I have to because my boss is asking,” let’s be honest, you haven’t really got a lot of choice, “How can I make this fit? Whatever help do I need? How can I have that conversation?” And I tend to default to the, “I can do this, and this is when I can get it to you.”

There’s another tool that I can share, if you like.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, please do.

Elizabeth Harrin
One of the things that has helped me has been the two-week look ahead. So, I will take a point in the week where I’ll look at what’s coming up in the next fortnight with the team, to say, “Okay, what do we know about the next two weeks? Who’s got holiday? When have we got big meetings that we need to prepare for? What deadlines do we have?” and then nothing really surprises you, or you’ve built in a little bit of time to be aware of the things that are coming up, so if you do get a surprise, it doesn’t throw your whole schedule off because you’ve already built in some resilience for what you know is coming up.

That’s been really helpful for me because it also means that I can look ahead in terms of just how busy I’m going to be. So, you talked about protecting yourself and being mentally ready to be busy and juggle all these things. If I know I’ve got another week coming up in the future and it’s very busy, lots of big meetings, high stress, I can prepare for that because I can make sure that I’ve got things for the children’s lunchboxes in the freezer, I can make sure I’ve got childcare organized, I can make sure I’m not booking any late-night social events for me that week.

Or, if I am, I’m planning the next morning so that that’s easy. And so, I’m trying to holistically look at work is coming up and what that affects me, how that affects me personally so that I can be more prepared to show up ready to work.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. Okay. Well, let’s dig into your five key concepts. They each start with P, which is handy to remember: portfolio, plan, people, productivity, positioning. We’ve already gotten a couple tidbits for each. Could you perhaps give us a quick definition or articulation of the concepts, and then perhaps a top do and don’t within each of the five?

Elizabeth Harrin
Okay. With portfolio, I talk about having full visibility of the work that you’ve got on the go at the moment and the things that you’re responsible for. So, my top tip for that is just to take an hour, perhaps even less, and just look through whatever notetaking tool you use or your notebook or the notes you’ve got on your phone, and try and write down everything that you are currently working on, looking at how much time does that need to take per week.

And I know working out hours is very difficult, so what you might want to do is just think, “It’s a big thing, a medium thing, a small thing. That’s good enough for this exercise.” And then that’s the portfolio piece done. It gives you a good sense of what’s going on. The thing not to do is to keep that information to yourself. Use that as a talking point tool with your manager and with your team to say, “Look at all these things I’ve got on the go. Can you help me prioritize so that I’m focusing more of my time on the things that really matter to the organization?”

The plan step is about scheduling, working out when you’re available to do things, and the tip I have for that is to look at all the different projects you’re working on, and then look at where they’ve got their big milestones, when are they going live, or when do you have a big meeting about them, and then plot those on – again, I did it on a spreadsheet – because then you can start to see, “Oh, project number one and project number four have very similar schedules.”

“Maybe we could work on them together and maybe there are some benefits in looking at how we can streamline and combine the work, if it makes sense to do so, so that we’re not doing everything twice.” With that you’re going to need help from other people. So, again, the tip not to do is to try and do that alone. Other people will have a different insight about what’s important and what’s coming up on a project schedule, so it’s worth involving the rest of the team in your planning.

The people element of the model is all around working with others, as you guess from the name, and that is to do with thinking through how you use other people’s time. So, my suggestion there, if I have to give you one thing, would be to look at where you can combine meetings. And I can tell you about a time I did not do this.

I went along to a meeting with my project sponsor, my main manager I was working with on that piece of work, and I was all ready to talk about one project, but he was also involved in another project, and he asked me questions about that one and I wasn’t ready to talk about that, I didn’t have any of my notes, so I baffled, made episode, went along, and got through it. But it made me think, actually, other people are working on multiple things, too.

And to them, they might have multiple things they want to ask you about, so let’s try and combine the communication so that we’re only contacting people once rather than contacting them multiple time about each different thing that you’re involved with because you then help them manage their time as well.

With productivity, which is the fourth P, it’s really around managing your own time, thinking through what works for you, what productivity tools and techniques you want to use, and how you can help other people in your team be productive as well. The thing not to do with that is to get sucked into the latest shiny tool or what’s working for your colleagues because, in my experience, everybody has quite different ways of working to the best of their ability.

For me, I’m very much a pen-and-paper person. I do use electronic tools for project scheduling and task management and all that, but I always have pen and paper as well. Whereas, I know people who would never write anything down. So, you need to find out what works best for you and then use that in the way that you work.

Positioning is the last P. It’s also the one that’s the most convoluted because I kind of have to find the P that fit it, but it’s more around, “How do you set yourself up for success? So, what does the environment look like?” So, this is all around checklists and templates and processes, and what can you change in your environment to make life easier for future you.

So, one very simple thing to do would be to think through, “What do I do on a regular basis? How much time do I spend thinking about that? Would it be easier if I just had a checklist or a work construction or something like that? Then, if I’m not here, someone else can do it, but, equally, when I need to do it, I can make sure I just wheeze through it. I don’t have to worry about any of those steps.”

And I wonder if this is part of me getting older, but I used to be able to hold a list of things in my head. Now, I struggle more to think about the different steps involved in every process and making sure that nothing gets forgotten. So, anything that can be written down and templated just saves you time in the future.

Pete Mockaitis
And when it comes to the holding in the head, I’ve really noticed that. It’s a little bit of a stressor in terms of, I guess, maybe the psychologists would call it our working memory capacity. That might not be right construct but something like that in terms of there are so many things we can put there, and then when we try to push it for more, I actually feel sort of stress signals popping up.

And so, what I find interesting is if there is a task that is already somewhat stressful, or I’d be prone to procrastinate on because I’m worried I might screw something up or overlook something, make a mistake, or it’s just unpleasant for any number of reasons, having that checklist in place is very satisfying because it’s like I can free up all the potential stress associated with thinking and remembering the steps because they’re just there, and I can feel a little bit of fun momentum associated with, “Okay, I checked this piece of a checklist. It only took 30 seconds but I did it, and it’s checked. And now momentum is there visibly on the page before my eyes.”

Elizabeth Harrin
Exactly. Who doesn’t love ticking a box on a spreadsheet, right, to say it’s done, cross off that task on your to-do list? Project managers love that kind of stuff. And it’s exactly true, and it gives you a better-quality result because you’re not going to forget things. You’re going to go through a set of steps. And, honestly, the first time I did it, my checklist was a bit rubbish, and as I went through the actual task, I went, “All right, I have to do that as well. Oh, I’ve forgotten to involve that person.” So, you just add it on and it becomes checklist version 2.0, and you keep improving and iterating as you go. But the next time you have to do that, you don’t have to think so hard.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Well, now just a couple follow-up questions across some of these five Ps. I’ve had the experience, and apparently there are some psychological truths or principles that suggest that we humans have a real hard time, in fact, estimating how long something is going to take. Is that your experience? And what can be done about this challenge?

Elizabeth Harrin
Yes, that’s very much my experience. It’s really hard to estimate. And a lot of what we do is knowledge work where we’re thinking of things or changing something, and we probably haven’t done that before, so you don’t even have past projects where you can go back and say, “When we did it the last time, it took us this long, so, therefore, we can just use those estimates.”

Sometimes that’s because organizations don’t really capture the data in a format we can go back and use again but, also, it’s because people suffer from optimism bias. And when we think, “Oh, yeah, we can do that in four hours,” meanwhile forgetting about the fact that we all need toilet breaks in the day, and to take calls, and to check our emails, and to turn up and do other things.

So, my suggestion for people who are struggling with estimating is to think about how many hours you’ve got in the day, and then to schedule yourself and other people in your team, or have conversations with other people about what’s realistic for them to do, but only think of yourself as available 80% of your time because that then gives you time for those team meetings, the mandatory training we talked about earlier, and taking phone calls on things that are completely unrelated but still relevant to your job, and then you’ve got a bit of a buffer in your day.

The other big challenge with estimating is that people often approach estimating, thinking that they’re only doing this one thing, whereas, in real life, we’re probably juggling multiple different strands of activity or many projects, and switching between projects also cause us some time. So, time blocking has helped me.

Blocking out some time, a few hours to work on a particular thing, or an afternoon to do a particular type of task, and talking to our colleagues about best ways to get things done, what productivity techniques work for them, how do they organize their time, when have they got holidays coming up that they might need to do more things beforehand to hand over, and that might make them less available for your project because they’re supporting something else is just a lot about talking.

And I think contingency as well. Do you think that would be useful?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Elizabeth Harrin
Yeah, contingency is a buffer time. People often ask me, “But how much contingency should I add to this estimate?” or, “I think this task is going to take five days, but what’s reasonable contingency?” And I tend to, “Contingency should be something that’s based on uncertainty.” So, if you’re not really sure and you’re just guessing, you want to slack on a bit of extra time. Quite a lot probably if you just don’t have the information to make an accurate guess at the moment. But if you’ve done the work before, or you’re quite confident in how long things are going to take, you could probably get away without adding a lot less extra time.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. That makes sense in terms of the variable driving whether you want to add more or less contingency is uncertainty because we just don’t know, so let’s play it safe by having some more in a high-uncertainty zone. So, let’s say that the uncertainty is small, you’ve done it before, but it’s a little different. Do you have a go-to percentage that you utilize?

Elizabeth Harrin
I like 10%, I would add 10% extra on. There are lots of estimating models, so if your organization is quite mature in the way that they approach time tracking and estimating, then there’s a lot better ways to do it than just to add on 10%. But if you are just working on something yourself without an awful lot of other guidance from a project management office or anything like that, then give yourself a bit of a buffer, and 10% seems to cover most scenarios.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And when it comes to the people side of things, when you’re in the tricky position of having to lead without the authority, like you own the project but you don’t own the employees, you have to do the stuff to make that proceed, it could be a tricky spot to be in. Do you have any top tips beyond being considerate in leveraging their time, of being extra influential, persuasive, to have people to say yes, and, in fact, follow through with their stuff?

Elizabeth Harrin
In my experience, I think it helps to tell people…well, to not tell people, to invite people to participate and explain the reasons behind why their participation is valuable. People like to do things because there’s a reason behind, not just because they’d been asked. So, the great thing about projects is that often there’s a change or a benefit that’s coming at the end of the work. Projects sometimes have bad outcomes, like, “We’re closing down an office, so we’re making your department redundant,” or something like that.

But, often, we’re trying to do something that will be beneficial for the organization and bring about something that’s good. So, if you can tie their contribution into the vision, or the bigger picture of why we’re doing the work in the first place, they can draw those lines and make the connection between how their contribution matters. That can be quite a powerful way of helping people to feel motivated about doing the work in the first place.

The other thing that works is allowing them to set their own deadlines. So, if you go to somebody, and say, “I need this by Tuesday,” their instant reaction might be, “Oh, I can’t do that. You can’t tell me what to do.” Whereas, if you can say, “We need this piece of work done, and your boss has suggested that you’re the right person to do it. How do you think…how much time do you think this might take?”

Obviously, this is not a conversation you’d have in three sentences, but you’d sit with them and explain what the requirements are and help them see the bigger picture of the project as well. And people can then say, “Well, if I need to involve this person and do this and work with that, then I think I could probably get that done by a week on Tuesday.” And that’s the date that goes in your project plan.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when they’re trying to do projects is they make up all the deadlines themselves. In fact, I’ve sat in a room with senior managers, and they’ve drawn out a project plan on a whiteboard, and said, “Right, that’s what we’re going to do.” And I thought, “But none of the people who are actually doing the thing are in the room.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, “You don’t know what it takes.”

Elizabeth Harrin
“You just don’t know. Why are you making this stuff up?” And then, of course, you just caused delays later because you’ve set expectations that are unmanageable. So, using other people’s expertise, and tapping into what they know, and trusting them to suggest the right timeframes can help. And I feel I’ve gone off the question now. Did I answer the question?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, no, it’s all juicy stuff in terms of you cast the vision for, “Okay, this is how things can be better when the project is done and how you’re contributing to that.” But the deadline-setting stuff, I think, is handy in terms of thinking like there might be a date by which it’s extra valuable to have this done, like, before the tradeshow, or the big meeting, or the big conference. So, that’s, I guess, would be nice to have it done, and executives can determine that.

However, I’m thinking about this is maybe the first project management lesson I learned I thought that was really useful – was it the triangle? You can probably describe it better, Elizabeth, than I can. What’s the time management or the project management triangle?

Elizabeth Harrin
We talk about the iron triangle, the triangle of constraints, of balancing time, cost, and quality. Although, the thought process behind that has moved on a bit now, and we don’t just use time, cost, and quality as a measure of success. But in terms of talking to your stakeholders, your colleagues, and your project sponsor, and your boss, it is really helpful because you can say, “Well, I can deliver to this level of quality, and it will cost this much and take this long.”

And then they could say, “But I want it faster. I can’t spend that much money. I want it cheaper.” And then you can adjust the corners of the triangle, and say, “Well, if we want it cheaper, it will have to be less quality, or maybe it will take longer because we’ll use cheaper resources to do it. Or, if you want it to take less time, it’ll probably cost more because we’ll throw more resources at it. We might be able to maintain quality but we might have to take a few things out of the project scope and maybe add those in as a phase two later, but then we’ll hit the deadline.”

So, it’s about balancing all these different success criteria. And that’s a really helpful point that you’ve put out there because you need to know what people feel is important, and maybe it’s the deadline, maybe it’s, “Do what you need to do but get it done by the tradeshow.” I worked in healthcare, and I was on a project once, and people didn’t really care about when it got done. Well, that’s not true. They did care when it got done, but what was most important was that when it was delivered, it was good quality.

Elizabeth Harrin
And if that took a couple of extra weeks, then a couple of extra weeks didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. They just needed it to be good. So, some people will say the date is important. Some people will say, “You’ve got a ceiling on this much money that you can spend,” or, “This quality criteria has to be met,” or it might be something like sustainability, customer satisfaction, or some other kind of measure that they think is important. And if you know that, then you can make all of your decisions based around, “How do we get to that?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is powerful to see what is the priority there. And when you say quality, I think my own synonym for quality is how much good stuff, in terms of we can have more…it’s almost two dimensions, like a scope thing in terms of how excellent is the thing and how many of the things are there. Like, if we’re doing a bunch of home renovations, it’s like, “Okay, you want 30 updates across the kitchen and the bathrooms and whatever. And so, we can sort of do fewer of those updates, or those updates could be chintzier, or we’re going to have to have more people working on it, contractors, etc. which will come with the paying for it, or we just take more time to do it.”

So, I think that has been handy for me as I think through stuff, and I get stressed out, like, “Uh-oh, how on earth….?” This feels bad to say but I guess it’s real and something has to give somewhere or else we will be those sad, burnt out, overwhelmed people, is that usually what I sacrifice is quality. It’s like, “All right, well, it’s going to be worse.” But because my quality expectations are usually so insane, we sent you a microphone, so I’m told that no one else does that, and I thought, “Oh, really? They probably should,” but whatever.

So, I’m able to back it up, it’s like, “Okay. Well, we’re just going to allow that, and it’s good enough for 98% of the people who are encountering this thing that I’m making, and I’m just going to have to take a breath and live with it, and that’s fine.”

Elizabeth Harrin
And that’s very much the case at work, isn’t it? There are some things that you absolutely have to get perfect. And if you’re a lawyer writing a contract, you can’t just go, “Oh, well, it’s 80% good enough.” Your client is not going to live with that. But if you’re drafting an internal document just for review to brief your colleagues on something, you know, I prefer not to send out things with typos, but if something did slip through, no one is going to die. It will be fine.

And if it means that you get it out the door at 5:00 o’clock, and you go home on time, and you have a life instead of sitting there stressing about every full stop, and staying at your keyboard till 7:00, because I guarantee that half the people who read that document won’t even notice whether a full stop is there or not. 

Pete Mockaitis
I really like what you said there about no one is going to die, and that is a perspective I’ve come to again and again, because it’s true. There are some things in healthcare, in transportation, in military, police, and other fields where it truly is life and death. The quality of your work will make that impact. And many other times in the land of spreadsheets and memos, it’s usually not.

And so, I find that quite comforting if I’m getting a little bit too worked up about something, is to recall that no one will die no matter how horrible an episode we produce, Elizabeth, although you’re doing great. So, that’s cool. Well, now tell me, Elizabeth, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Elizabeth Harrin
Something that you can do to start managing your multiple projects more effectively is to think about how you can group them into different buckets. So, if you do a couple of things for one client, or you’re leading on a couple of initiatives for one particular department, how can you bring those things together to streamline the communication, try and have meetings where you cover multiple things in one go instead of scheduling lots of meetings about the same thing?

So, looking for connections between the work you do can make it feel a lot less overwhelming. If you’ve got 15 things on the go, for example, that’s 15 things you have to think about. But if you can put them into buckets, and you’ve got five things in each bucket, then you’ve only got three things to think about, and it could be around the solution that you’re building, the person you’re doing it for, the type of technology that’s in use, the date it’s got to be finished by. It could be anything. But if you can group the work, I found in people I worked with have found that it relieves some of the overload because it gives you a way to think about things at the next level up.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Elizabeth Harrin
The quote that I have on my wall is from Francine Jay, and it says, “My goal is no longer to get more done, but rather to have less to do.”

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Elizabeth Harrin
I like the copy machine study by Ellen Langer, which is about providing a reason for why we want people to take action. When people know there’s a reason, they’re more likely to do the action that we want. 

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Elizabeth Harrin
If I was on an island, I’d be taking Les Miserables. I really love that book by Victor Hugo. If I was choosing a business book, I’d choose Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers by Anthony Mersino, which really changed the way that I look at our profession.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Elizabeth Harrin
I use a tool called Infinity for task management, and a Maltron keyboard to help me type more easily.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. That’s cool. And a favorite habit, something you do to be awesome at your job?

Elizabeth Harrin
I do Pilates once a week. I think I need to have that time just to be focused on me.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and listeners, and they say, “Yes, Elizabeth, you’re so right when you said this”?

Elizabeth Harrin
Maybe communicate more than you think you have to.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Elizabeth Harrin
You can find me on LinkedIn and on all the normal social media channels. And you can find out more about project management at my blog, RebelsGuidetoPM.com.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Elizabeth Harrin
I would say to remember that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. So, if you want to just organize your work in a different way, just do it. Most managers want action and results, and they don’t really mind how you get there, as long as you get there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Elizabeth, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck with all your projects.

Elizabeth Harrin
Thank you for having me on the show.

825: The Six Steps of Masterful Delegation with Aaron Schmookler

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Aaron Schmookler shares practical, hard-won wisdom on how to delegate wisely to minimize time, and frustration.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to get over the resistance to delegate
  2. What you need to do before delegating anything 
  3. The simple trick to ensuring follow through 

 

About Aaron

For nearly 30 years, Aaron has helped people find their intrinsic motivation, their capacity to collaborate, and the fulfillment that comes from harnessing their creativity. As the co-founder and CEO of The Yes Works, he specializes in supporting business leaders who believe that people are their greatest asset to create environments that bring out their best. 

Aaron and The Yes Works serve clients across the country and across industries including Microsoft, MOD Pizza, DiscoverOrg, Burkhart Dental Supply, SOG Knives, 9th Gear, and Textainer to make work good for people and people good for work. 

Resources Mentioned

Aaron Schmookler Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Aaron, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Aaron Schmookler
Thank you for having me, Pete. It’s exciting to be talking to you again.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited too. And I was taking a gander at our last conversation. Fun fact, in the transcript of Episode 497, the phrase “Tell me more about that” appeared 13 times.

Aaron Schmookler
Oh, fun that you counted.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I could just do Control-F find. It’s funny because I think we’re both such fanatical fans of the phrase and how useful it is for a variety of purposes. And, listeners, I recommend you check that out. It may transform your lexicon forever. But I’d love to hear, over the last three years, have there been any interesting stories or discoveries or saves of that day that have emerged with you trying out our favorite phrase?

Aaron Schmookler
Boy, I’m sure that there have been countless times that that has come up. I had already experienced the time when somebody called me a jerk or some other less kind, less family-friendly term, and I said something to the effect of, “Well, clearly, I’ve rubbed you the wrong way. Tell me more about that.” And that turned the relationship around.

Since then, I’m sure it’s helped with the health of my marriage and with my daughter. I’m sure, also, that it’s helped with my business partners and with my clients. It’s such a natural and consistent part of my lexicon now that I don’t think that I have the dramatic stories that I might’ve had when I first started to employ that phrase as a tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. Well, it has continued to serve me well also, particularly when I just need a beat to think, to orient, to, “What the heck is going on right now?” as well as, “I genuinely don’t understand what you said,” and it’s much more friendly than, like, “What the heck are you blathering on about now?”

Aaron Schmookler
“What? That doesn’t make any sense,” is what I’m often tempted to say.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, good to know. So, now, I’d love to chat with you about delegation. You sent me a beautiful proposal. Thank you for that. And I thought that’s exactly something that we should talk about, so let’s do it. Can you kick us off with any particularly surprising or fascinating or extra counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about delegation in your 30 years of working with different folks?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, I’ll skip to the end and say I love the book Who Not How. And I’m trying now to remember the name of the author, but “Who Not How,” the premise or the thesis of the book is, essentially, “Stop trying to figure out how to do it. Somebody already knows and they can do it better than you. So, figure out who should be doing this instead of how you are going to do it.”

Pete Mockaitis
I love that so much that I was frantically Googling in the background. It is Dan Sullivan. I believe that’s the strategic coach Dan Sullivan.

Aaron Schmookler
That’s the guy, yeah. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Who’s got a wealth of goodies that I’ve enjoyed.
Who Not How
, I think that really holds true. And I am astounded at how people can often do things so much better than me. Maybe I shouldn’t be astounded. I should just expect that by now, having learned it so many times. Where I thought, I’ve got a rental property in Chicago, and I thought, “Okay, I’ve checked out the BiggerPockets podcast, okay, I’ve got a little bit of sensibility associated with finding a bargain and renting it out and making it look okay.”

And then I get a property manager who just, like, ran circles around me in terms of, “Oh, yeah. Well, that’s actually a two-car garage so you just got to paint a really good line in there.” I was like, “Oh, but it’s kind of tight.” He’s like, “Welcome to every parking space in Chicago. Also, here’s how we can make them pay for their own water.” It’s like, “Whoa, you should be doing this and not me.”

Aaron Schmookler
One of the things that’s coming to the top of my mind as you’re sharing that story, as a counterintuitive truth about delegation, when I’m training managers to delegate effectively, one of the questions that I ask them in kind of preparing before we got to the “What are our six-step model looks like?” is I ask them, “What holds you back from delegating?”

And, very often, I get responses like, “I don’t want to give people things that I wouldn’t want to do. I don’t want to just push the scut work off onto somebody else.” And the remarkable truth is all the stuff that I hate doing, somebody else loves.

Pete Mockaitis
It is remarkable and true. Hence, a remarkable truth.

Aaron Schmookler
Right. I thank God every day for inventing accountants, for example.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. You’re speaking my language, and I love accountants too. I hope I haven’t been harsh on them just because I dislike doing accounting work so much, but if it’s in the realm of bookkeeping or compliance-y things, today, we had to find a title for a car in order to renew a thing, I was like, “What? Is a paper I was supposed to have received in a mail and then held on to for a year? That’s really pushing my capability.”

Aaron Schmookler
As my friend Dave would say, “I resemble that remark.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right, so that’s cool. So, it’s who not how, and Dan Sullivan wrote a great book called just that, which is nifty. And some things we sure dislike doing, other people love doing. That’s cool and a blessing. So, then lay it on us, is there, maybe, a particularly inspiring story to tee this up and get us going, “Oh, yeah, I’m fired up to delegate”? Maybe there’s someone who’s overwhelmed and transformed their effectiveness and their stress levels with delegation. No pressure, Aaron.

Aaron Schmookler
I’ll tell a story from my own history. I don’t know if we talked before, Pete, about the fact that I come from a theater background, and my primary training there was as a director, but on the way, I was also a technical director. And one of the things that the technical director is responsible for is, at the end of the show, the very night that the last audience sees the show, as soon as the audience is out the door and those doors are closed, at that very moment begins what’s called strike and they start tearing down the set.

A lot of it goes, ridiculous amounts of the set goes into the trash, all the lights are removed, those that aren’t part of the regular repertory in the theater. And the technical director’s job at strike is, essentially, to make sure that it goes and that it goes off without a hitch. And the first time that I ever led strike, I remember standing on the stage, I’ve got my tools in my hands, I’m spending a fair amount of time working on the materials myself, and pointing and telling people, “Okay, go do this,” and giving them a single task to do, and people would be flocking to me.

I, eventually, had to put my tools down, and it was just so much work for me to try to direct 23, or something like that, people to go and do this task and then this task, and then this task, and then this task. I was so exhausted at the end of that night that I might as well have done the strike myself in order to have gotten that exhausted, and it wasn’t very effective. And we were there much longer than we should’ve been, and we made much less progress than we should’ve been.

So, I called up the last tech director that I remembered working for and really enjoyed, and I said, “What did I do wrong? What do I need to do better?” And he said, “Okay. Well, tell me about what you did.” So, I told him the story of the night, he said, “You are assigning things task by task. And then he said, “You got to break things down into objectives, what’s the result that you want to see, and put somebody in charge of that result.”

“And when somebody comes to you and says, ‘What do I do next?’ you say, ‘Go join Mary over there,’ or, ‘Go join John over there. He’s got this project and he’ll put you to work.’” And so, by delegating objectives, I was able to create mini-teams of my team. And the next time, we got more done than we had anticipated. We got out earlier than we had anticipated.

And so, just that one shift from delegating or assigning tasks, and this is a distinction that I was expecting to talk to you about by the end of our conversation, this distinction between assigning tasks and delegating end results, delegating outcomes, was tremendously powerful for me in an instant.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it, and it really does resonate. I am thinking about events. When you talked about striking the stage, like, “Oh, I did some theater stuff back in the day.” And some events, like putting on these, it was called HOBY, Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership, sophomore leadership seminars for high school students, as well as my wedding. Like, one of my favorite things to do was carve out zones of responsibility for people.

And sometimes, I even like to make up new names. It’s like, “Okay, Michelle, you’re fantastic and I’m going to trust you to be the person who answers all of the guests’ questions that they would like answered when me and my bride would rather not be tied to our phones on our wedding day.”

Aaron Schmookler
There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Because I’ve been on both sides of that equation in terms of, “Oh, I’ve got some questions but it’s not quite clear. Like, where do I go? What do I do? Can I do this at the wedding? I don’t want to bother the bride and groom but I kind of like to know.” And so, I was like, “Michelle, you are the director of guest experience. That’s your role. And we’re letting all the guests know, ‘If you have any questions, you call Michelle.” And so, that was really cool.

And for HOBY, we got someone who’s talented with design things but she didn’t want to be in charge of the whole programming thing, so we said, “You are the artistic director. If there’s any sort of color or logo or design or image that goes on a T-shirt or a booklet or a nametag or a door decoration, you are the master of that.” And she’s like, “Oh, sweet.” I knew it was fun for both of us because it decimates ambiguity, it was like, “Oh, that’s me.” It’s like, “Oh, lights? You say lights, Aaron, that’s me.” “Oh, did you say the huge backdrop? Oh, that’s me.” And you get to feel good when you own that thing.

Aaron Schmookler
That’s right. That’s right. And I’ve created an event recently that we called “I’m not participating in this recession.” And it was an event for C-suite folks to come to. I had a CEO, who had been the CEO of SOG Knives, to come because he had taken his company through some recessions. And one of the things that he shared with our attendees was that he likes to make people the CEO of their realm within his company because it just creates so much leverage for him to be able to say, “You handle this.”

And one of the things that I advise, when people are contemplating, “Can I delegate this?” is that if somebody can do a job up to 75% as well as you can, 75% is a good marker to say to them, “You, go take care of this.” Because if you can delegate to three people 75% of what you could accomplish, well, the leverage of all that multiplicity is tremendous.

Aaron Schmookler
Seventy-five percent of three things is much better than 100% of one.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I dig that. And I think it’s really useful to note, “The thing that you’re delegating, is it super crazy mission-critical?” Like, there are very few things in this world, although there are some, in which if you do it a hair better, the rewards are huge. I’m thinking about maybe direct-response copywriting. I’m thinking about Google search engine optimization. I’m thinking about Olympic swimming. Hundredth of a second, like, gold versus nothing.

Aaron Schmookler
Yes, that’s correct.

Pete Mockaitis
But almost everything else is, “You can do this 75% as well? Well, then have at it, and away we go.”

Aaron Schmookler
Especially within our companies, part of the time and effort that we put in our companies is on the core competency of our company, “This is what we do. This is what we do different from other people. This is what we do better than other people. This is what you have come to us for. Everything else in our company is not that.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. Bookkeeping, you didn’t come here. Or, invoicing. Yeah, that’s good. All right. Well, lovely concepts. Now, you actually have a pretty precise five or six, depending on how we’re counting, steps for effective delegation. Can you walk us through these?

Aaron Schmookler
Sure. And you’ve hinted at the idea that this is a six-step model with five steps, in a way, because step zero, I’m considering step zero because, though this is the first step in delegating, it is just you, all by yourself, getting yourself ready to go and do the delegation. And there are some questions for you to answer before you go and do that.

One, “What is the desired outcome? What do you want? What is the end state that you need to have accomplished?” In the military, they call this commander’s intent, “What’s the commander’s intent?” It sounds simple but it’s often very hard, and one way to get there is to think about, “Why do I want this done?” That will help you to conceive what is the end result look like.

So, then when you’ve got your end result mapped out, you also need to answer the question, “When do I need to have this result in hand? And, therefore, what’s a decent margin for failing?” So, if I’m going to delegate something to you, Pete, that I need on Friday by 3:00, if I asked you to deliver it to me by Friday at 3:00, I’ve set us both up to be in real trouble. Better that I should ask you for it by Thursday at noon so that we’ve got time to look it over, make some adjustments, figure out that we’ve got problems, resolve them before I need the thing.

The next question to ask yourself, and we’re still in step zero, is, “Who will be served by taking on this responsibility? And who is able to serve the purpose?” That’s kind of a two-part question. So, who is the right person because they’re going to be served by this? Maybe they really enjoy this kind of work. Or, when I have somebody working for me, I ask them, “Where do you want your career to end up? Where do you want your career to be a year, five years down the line? Okay, what skills and talents are you going to need to get there? Oh, well, this project is going to serve you developing that. So, that is a good reason to give this to you, also, because you’re going to be capable of serving the purpose.”

And then the last question to ask yourself, but still in prep, is, “What are they going to need to succeed? What’s the information that they’re going to need? What resources are they going to need?” And do not skip this one, “What authority, what decision-making authority are they going to need in order to succeed?” That’s step zero before you even begin to delegate, preparing yourself to be ready.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then, I’m wondering, for those who have a hard time letting go, delegating, they might say, “Well, nobody is sufficiently qualified or able to handle this.” How do we respond to that?

Aaron Schmookler
Two things. One is, “Are you sure?” We talked already about that 75% rule. If somebody is going to be able to deliver 75%, then maybe it’s time to reassess what nobody looks like. The second thought that I have is Dennis Bakke wrote a book called Joy at Work in which he suggests that you push decision-making down. And in delegating, he says, “You can set parameters. Without withdrawing the authority to make decisions, you can set parameters.”

So, if I delegate to you, Pete, and I think you don’t have the judgment yet, I might say, “I want you to talk to Betty and Bob about everything that you’re considering before you make the decision. At the end of the day, the decision is yours, and I want you to have the benefit of their insights before you make the final decision.” So, that’s another way of cranking up people’s capability while leaving their decision-making authority intact.

And I’ve actually thought of a third thing to share, which is, “If they can’t do the whole thing, what parts of it can they do? What parts of it can you delegate and then maybe you retain the rest?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. All right. I like that notion of the parameters. So, one of it could be, “If it’s you get the input from these people, another one could be if it’s over X thousand dollars or whatever, then you check in with me,” or, “If it’s concerning super client A, B, or C, I want to know about it. If it’s any dozens of other clients, have at it.”

Cool. So, we’ve got the parameters, so it’s not a sort of 100% carte blanche, “It’s all yours,” but rather, “Okay, here’s a slice of it,” and it may very well still be the vast majority, which is cool. All right, so that’s step zero. What’s our step one?

Aaron Schmookler
Step one, and this one is a little bit counterintuitive, is to ask somebody, to give them something to do without giving them any details. And this is counterintuitive on a couple of levels. When we’re training managers, some people push back on the idea that they should ask anybody anything instead of just simply telling them, “Hey, here’s what you’re going to do.”

And then the other reason that they push back is they say, “What do you mean with no details?” So, here’s what I mean, “Hey, Pete, can I get your help with something?” “Pete, may I give you a project?”

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so funny, like, when you asked me that, you’ve galvanized my attention but maybe in an anxious kind of a way, it’s like, “Ahh, what do you have in mind exactly, Aaron?” And maybe…

Aaron Schmookler
So, the maybe is important because the maybe is correct, and we’ll get to that in a moment. The galvanizing your attention is the biggest part of this. One is I’m treating with respect by asking for permission. And then I can’t count the number of times, somebody will poke their head into my office and simply start to ask me questions, and my attention is on whatever I’m doing, and I have no idea what they’ve said, it goes in one ear and out the other.

And with my attention deficit disorder, and I’m very much like this, and even neurotypical people are like this as well, we all need a basket to put things in. So, when you say, “Can I get your help with something? Can I give you a project? Can I give you a new responsibility?” I now have a basket to put all of the details that you’re going to give me in and create order for my brain, and that’s going to serve everybody.

And with respect to the anxiety that I’ve created, largely that’s because you and I don’t have a relationship where we’re doing this, where you know what’s going to come next. So, one of the things that I recommend to any manager or anybody who’s in a position to be delegating is to tell people in advance, “Hey, when I delegate to you, here’s what it’s going to look like. I’m going to go through these six steps.”

“And what this step I’m going to do before I even get to you, then I’m going to come and I’m going to ask you, ‘Can I get your help with something?’ I’m going to ask you, ‘Can I give you a new responsibility?’” And no is a perfectly good answer, and here are the other steps that I’m going to go through so that that anxiety is alleviated in advance by your knowing, “Okay, this is just step one in a five-step process.”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And then I think you say no is the acceptable answer to, “Can I get your help with something?” I guess, also, maybe any number of context-sharing things, like, “Well, I feel wildly overwhelmed by this crazy important task that’s due in two hours, but what did you have in mind?”

Aaron Schmookler
Right. And if you tell me you have a crazy important task that’s due in two hours, I’m going to say, either, “Thank you for telling me, Pete, you’re not the right person,” or, “Oh, well, this is not pressing. Why don’t I come to you three hours from now to give you a chance to get that turned in and catch your breath?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Aaron Schmookler
So, that takes us to step two, which is now we’re going to lay out the details of who does what by when, what is it that I’m asking you for. And there’s another podcast called Manager Tools, and one of the things that they suggest at this point in any delegation is that instead of delegating the task be done, delegate the reporting that it is done.

And I think that is just a brilliant insight to say, instead of, “Hey, Pete, will you do this?” to say, “Hey, Pete, please tell me by 3:00 p.m. on Thursday that this is complete,” or, “Please send me an email with the file of this report by 3:00 p.m. on Thursday.” So, you’re delegating the reporting because if I don’t know it’s done, it has no value to me.

So, delegate the reporting, “Tell me as soon as this is complete. Here’s the outcome I’m looking for,” the manager’s intent, what is the end state, rather than all of the meticulous details, “Here’s the deadline and here are some resources, here are some considerations, here’s the authority that you have.” When I say consideration, that might be you might be tempted. If I’m asking you to rent us a truck, I might say, “The last time we went to U-Hall, we had these problems, so consider looking at Penske and Budget before you go talking to U-Hall.” So, that’s step two, is to lay out what it is that I’m asking for.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So you’re elaborating, so who does what, by when, to what standard, for what reason, with what resources. Can you elaborate a little bit on the standard? Like, how can we go about unpacking and delineating what is good optimal acceptable versus what is not?

Aaron Schmookler
So, you’re going to want to ask yourself the question of, “What do I need to see?” So, the standard for a truck might include it needs those rails on the wall that you can latch things to. The standard might include the budget. The standard might include the size of the truck. If I’m asking you to create a report, the standard might include margins for error.

Or, if I’m asking you to design something, the standard might be, “I want this to look opulent.” What are the ways that you can describe what it should look like, what it should feel like, what it should be like? And what are the questions that you’re going to be asking when you assess its success?

Aaron Schmookler
In other words, how do we know if you’ve succeeded at the end? Are there no grammatical errors? Are there no spelling errors? Does that matter? And perfectionism, when we talk about perfectionism, perfectionism is somebody insisting that they go beyond the standard, which wastes time, effort, and peace of mind.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. Cool. Well, now, can you share with us the step three, negotiate?

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah. So, step three, as you said, is to negotiate, “I asked you if I could give you something. You said yes. And you said yes sight unseen, or maybe you said it depends, so you don’t know what…you didn’t know until now what I was asking for.” So, at this point, the negotiation includes asking the questions, “Okay, now that you know what I’m asking for, Pete, are you still in? Does this still work for you? Do you have what you need?”

“I’ve told you about these resources, I’ve told you about that authority, I’ve given you these tools. Is there anything else that you need that I haven’t thought of? Do you need help? Do you need people? People are some of the resources that you might need. And if you’re tempted to say no, and/or if you’re not sure how to meet the rest of your obligations, then we may be reallocating your other priorities and your other responsibilities.”

“I don’t have time to do that because I’ve got this.” “Oh, well, let’s delay the deadline on that,” or, “Okay, let me take back this thing that I was trying to delegate to you because, clearly, this isn’t going to fit on your plate,” or, “Let’s take this other thing off your plate and give it to somebody else so that you have the bandwidth to handle this.” So, the negotiation is, “Okay, what will it take to make this work if, in fact, it does?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then step four?
Aaron Schmookler
So, step four is to keep in touch, and this is very often an overlooked step because people say, “Okay, go do this. I’ll see you at the end.” Tools for this include if you’re a manager having weekly one-on-ones where you’re checking in with your direct report, or the weekly one-on-one is focused on your relationship in general where you keep touch, “How is this going?”

Or, if this is a longer-term project, you set, “Here’s the final deadline,” that there are benchmarks along the way, “Here’s how we know we’re on track. This is going to be accomplished three weeks away from the deadline,” “This is going to be accomplished four weeks away from the deadline,” “This is going to be accomplished five weeks away from the deadline.” So, you’re keeping touch of, “Are we on track at each of those benchmark locations?” And you’re checking in on the standards at those times as well.

So, you create a channel for reporting and keep in touch at least weekly, at least briefly. So, that’s step four, is to make sure that you’re keeping in touch.

Pete Mockaitis
At least weekly, that’s handy. And then you mentioned that fine is not a status report in terms of, “Hey, how are things going?” “Fine.” What more precisely are we looking to hear when we’re keeping in touch?

Aaron Schmookler
Here’s where the benchmarks come in, “Oh, well, I’m two days behind on this benchmark,” or, “I’m two days ahead. I’ve reached this benchmark even though it’s not actually due until two days from now.” So, that’s one thing. Or, a status report is, “We’re on track and, in terms of we’ve hit all the benchmarks, up until now. And there’s an obstacle emerging that I didn’t anticipate. Let’s talk about how I might get around this obstacle. Can I have your insight?” Or, “I’m going to need a $100 or $1,000 to level this obstacle that’s come up.” “The price of lumber has changed.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then step five, debrief?

Aaron Schmookler
Step five is after the fact. So, arguably, this isn’t part of a delegation model. It’s part of a checking in, and I think it needs to be there because I don’t consider it complete until we’ve learned what there is to learn from the process that we just went through, “What worked and what didn’t? What worked in terms of how our communication went? What worked in terms of my execution of what you delegated to me? What worked in terms of did our standard actually meet the need?”

“I delivered this entirely on standard. This is exactly what we designed and it still didn’t solve the problem that this project was intended to solve. So, what needs to change?” So, a few questions to ask here, “What do we need to keep? What do we need to stop, to just get rid of this entirely? This was completely extraneous. What do we need to add? What wasn’t there that needs to be there? And what do we need to adjust? We got the blue one, it was the wrong blue. Or, we got these but, instead of five, we need seven.”

So, what do we need to keep, what do we need to stop, what do we need to add, what do we need to adjust. And that takes us, Pete, through six steps if you include step zero to prepare yourself for the delegation.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then maybe zooming out or cutting across all these steps, what are some of the top things that make all the difference for preventing disasters, disappointments, oopsies, and stressful moments?

Aaron Schmookler
So, I’ll start with perhaps the answer that people are going to like the least. I remember when I took my first advanced level biology class in college was a genetics class. And I sat down for the first exam, and I looked at the cover sheet of the exam, and what it said was, “This is one test in one class, in one part of your schooling, which is just one part of your life. Your performance on this exam, while it may be important right now, is not critical to the outcome of your life, so don’t fret.” That was the cover page of this exam.

And then I opened up the exam, and the first question was, “For ten points, what color is a Golden Retriever? Hint: Look at its name.” So, that story is intended, Pete, to illustrate that part of how you can prevent disasters is by chilling out, both because the things that you’re thinking of as disasters are probably not as disastrous as you think they are, and because fearing disaster makes disaster more likely. And so, one illustration that I love about this, I used to be a hang glider pilot.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Aaron Schmookler
And when you land a hand glider, generally, you’re looking for a big open field to land the hang glider in. And what happens more often than you would imagine is that there’s a big open field with one tree in the middle, and the hang glider pilot hits the tree in the middle. There’s lots of open space, and the hang glider pilot flies right into the tree.

And the reason is that in the fear and anxiety of not wanting to hit the tree, the pilot looks at the tree. And your brain is designed to take you where you’re looking. Millions of years of evolution have made our brains direct where we go to where we’re looking. So, if you’re looking for a disaster, you are much more likely to steer into it. Look instead for the clear open field, and you think, “Open field. Open field. Okay, there’s the tree, that’s where I don’t want to go,” and then you spend the bulk of your time and attention on, “Here’s where I do want to go. Here’s where I do want to go.”

Another part of the answer to your question, Pete, is to consider those benchmarks, and to really not get lazy about checking in with those benchmarks, and assessing along the way, as part of your keep in touch step, “Do these benchmarks still make sense or do they need to be reassessed? Are we still on target to meet the deadline? Are we still on standard? Are we getting further and further? If we start to fall behind, are we getting further and further behind, or are we finding that, over time, we’re catching up?” So, those are a few of the thoughts that I have about that question.

[39:21]

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And then when it comes to micromanaging, I think folks don’t like being micromanaged, and, on the flipside, managers are scared to be micromanaging. How do we make sure we strike this balance appropriately?

Aaron Schmookler
Micromanaging is about backseat driving. It’s about checking in so regularly that people can’t get into a flow. Micromanaging is about making decisions that other people could make. It is not about the frequency of your check-in, provided you’re allowing people to accomplish stuff and get into a flow state before your next check-in. People are so afraid of micromanaging in my experience. The tyranny of micromanagement is the fear of micromanaging far more often than the tyranny of micromanagement is actual micromanagement.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that’s reassuring and comforting. So, then any maybe pro tips or indicators, like, “Oh, you might be getting close to that line”?

Aaron Schmookler
Of micromanagement?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Aaron Schmookler
If you are tempted to take back the project that you’ve given to somebody, think twice. Taking back the delegation is often a piece of micromanagement. If you are trying to get marginal improvement by changing the decisions that they have made, you’re very likely micromanaging. And it’s important to think about… micromanagers are very often, what they’re trying to do is risk management, “I don’t want this to go badly. I want this to go as well as it possibly could. I want the outcome to be 100%.”

The risk there, the risk that you actually attain is demoralizing people, is losing the leverage that you have as somebody who can delegate, to get more than one thing done at a time. And so, if you are wasting human capital, if you are wasting people’s potential and fulfillment in pursuit of marginal accomplishment, you are a micromanager. It’s time to rethink your priorities.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, Aaron, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Aaron Schmookler
I’m glad you brought up micromanagement because that probably would’ve been how I would’ve answered that question. I think I’m ready for favorite things.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it. Could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Aaron Schmookler
This quote is often attributed to Goethe and it, evidently, is not his, and it’s not known where it came from. So, it is, “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Aaron Schmookler
there’s an experiment around something called enclothed cognition.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Aaron Schmookler
And enclothed cognition is, essentially, enclothed, meaning the clothes that you are wearing, cognition, meaning thought. And so, this experiment took people and put them in a smock, like a painter’s smock, and asked them to do accounting work, like work on a spreadsheet, the kind of stuff that you and I were talking about we don’t really like.

And wearing a smock, they were worse than if they were just wearing their normal clothes at doing that task. And wearing a lab coat, they were better than they were at doing that task than if they were just wearing their normal street clothes. And by contrast, if they were asked to do something creative, like create a painting, then they were better wearing the smock than they were in their normal street clothes. And if you put them in a lab coat, they were worse at being creative and original and interesting in creating their art than they were…worse in a lab coat than they were in their street clothes. Fascinating.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Aaron Schmookler
Today, I’m going to name Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. A very compelling book about negotiation.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job.

Aaron Schmookler
I love Calendly. I’m not that great at tracking administrative details, so being able to give somebody either a link to go and book time on my calendar, or Calendly gives you this one-off meeting thing where I can tell you, “Here are a bunch of times. Click one and you’ll appear instantly on my calendar.” Very, very useful for me.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Aaron Schmookler
“One more” is my favorite habit right now. There’s a lot to do in my life, as there is in all or our lives. And I might go to the sink that’s maybe full of the day’s dishes and start to wash the dishes and start to be tempted to go, “I’m feeling hungry. I want to go dirty another dish.” And I just say, “One more.” And one more will often get me all the way through all the dishes, or all the phone calls that I need to make, or any of those things. So, I have a habit right now of saying, “One more,” when I start to feel like, “I’ve got to move on from this.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Aaron Schmookler
I’ve mentioned some of the manager training that we’ve been doing lately, and this is something that hits all managers, I think, where they live. I’ve had CEOs audibly kind of get hit, they sound like they’ve just been punched in the stomach when I say, “If there’s no consequence for consistently missing a job requirement, then that thing is not actually a job requirement. It’s something that you’ve put on your wish list and it’s a resentment-builder.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Aaron Schmookler
You can find me on LinkedIn. I’m the only Aaron Schmookler on LinkedIn. And you can find me on all the work that we’re doing at TheYesWorks.com.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, I’ll stay in keeping with the theme of the day – delegate. Go delegate. Are you not good at it? Delegate it. Are you not interested in it? Delegate it. You don’t have time? Delegate it. Delegate it. Go delegate. There’s almost nobody that I know who delegates too much, but there are lots of people that I know who delegate too little. Myself included, by the way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Aaron, this has been a treat. I wish much luck and fun in all your delegations.

Aaron Schmookler
Well, thank you. Likewise, right back at you.

813: How to Make Time for the Things that Matter with Laura Vanderkam

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

Laura Vanderkam reveals the secret to carving out time for what’s truly important.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The right way to do leisure time 
  2. The perfect day to do your planning
  3. How to make your schedule more flexible 

About Laura

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including The New Corner Office, Juliet’s School of Possibilities, Off the Clock, I Know How She Does It, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and 168 Hours. Her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Fortune. She is the host of the podcast Before Breakfast and the co-host, with Sarah Hart-Unger, of the podcast Best of Both Worlds.   

Resources Mentioned

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Laura Vanderkam Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Laura, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Laura Vanderkam
Thank you for having me back.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s so good to be chatting again, and I’m excited to dig into some of the wisdom of your latest, Tranquility by Tuesday. But, first, could you share with us maybe your most favorite-st discovery over the last year or two?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, I’ve had a lot of discoveries in the last year or two. Among other things, we moved into a very old home, which is new to us but we did a lot of renovations to it. So, I’ve discovered new things about, like, slate shingles. Who knew that what anyone says to you? I’m sure I’m supposed to come up with some great job tip or productivity-type thing, and I’m about to say slate shingles. You know? There’s a whole artform to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, is there any particular benefit to them being made of slate?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, it’s just that that’s how many used to be in very old houses. So, if you have a historic commission who is monitoring your renovation moves, then you need to replicate what is there. But it turns out that when you see a grey roof, that’s like a slate roof, often it’s a mix of different colors. So, it’s like a mix of purple and green and darker grey and lighter grey. It’s really kind of cool how they create the effect. But, anyway, I’ve learned a lot of other things but that was just on my mind because we’ve been doing a lot of renovations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s fun. Well, also fun is your book Tranquility by Tuesday. What’s the story here?

Laura Vanderkam
Yes, so with Tranquility by Tuesday, I realized, I’ve given a lot of time management advice over the years. Thousands of people, at this point, who sent me their schedules, and I’d weigh in. And, at some point, I realized I was giving a lot of the same advice, that many of the things I was telling people to do were very similar, even though people’s lives look very different.

So, I honed this down into nine of my favorite time management rules, and then decided to test them out. So, I had 150 people learn each of these nine rules, one week at a time. They would answer questions about how they planned to implement it in their lives. They would then answer questions a week later about how it went. I could measure them on various dimensions over the course of the project. And I’m happy to report that when people followed these nine time-management rules, they did, in fact, feel more satisfied with their time.

So, much of Tranquility by Tuesday is out-there observations, what they saw as they were trying to use these rules in their lives and the successes they had, the challenges they faced, and how they overcame these.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Laura, I love that so much. Getting real in terms of, okay, real people doing real stuff on a real program, measuring some things before and after, as opposed to simply pontificating, “So, this is what I think is cool about time management.”

Laura Vanderkam
Well, I read self-help for busy people, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time, so there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so tell us, what were the dimensions you measured and what are some of the results? So, if listeners, I’m hoping, are already salivating, like, “Okay, Laura, what’s the size of this prize? And I’ll be all ears for the nine rules once I know just how much more awesome my life and job will be.”

Laura Vanderkam
Yes. So, I had this whole time-satisfaction scale which is 13 questions, and in order to turn a qualitative measurement, subjective measurements into some sort of data, I had these 13 statements, and people would say how much they disagreed or agreed with them. So, as an example, one statement might be, “I regularly have time just for me,” or, “Yesterday, I didn’t waste time on things that weren’t important to me,” “Generally, I get enough sleep to feel well-rested,” “Yesterday, I made progress on my professional goals,” things like that.

And you could strongly disagree, in which case you’d put one, or you could strongly agree, that was a seven, or various dimensions in between, sort of disagree, sort of agree, that sort of thing. And so, I could measure how people’s answers to these questions and several others change over the course of the nine weeks.

And on the full scale, so combining all 13 questions, people’s time satisfaction scores rose by 16% over the course of the nine weeks. So, 16% looking at 150 people, that’s a very statistically significant result. Maybe 16% doesn’t sound huge to some people, who are like, “No, no, I want to be twice as satisfied.” But it’s like if you’re getting 16% returns on anything in nine weeks, I think that’s pretty good.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And if it sticks, I’m thinking, “Well, if you’re 16% more satisfied with your time,” and your time is basically your life. Was it Benjamin Franklin? It’s not what your live is made up of days and hours and minutes and seconds. They all come together, and that’s a life. So, if people are 16% more satisfied, that’s like a sixth of them, life or death. You know what I’m saying?

Laura Vanderkam
We didn’t do that math. Well, I did check in with people a month later and three months later. And, in fact, the scores were still elevated, so they were maintaining their increased satisfaction with their time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, 16%, I think that’s a huge lift. Nine rules, that sounds pretty manageable and sensible. Lay it on us. What are these nine rules?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, I can go straight through them if you would like.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Laura Vanderkam
The first one, rule one, give yourself a bedtime. Rule two, plan on Fridays. Rule three, move by 3:00 p.m. Rule four, three times a week is a habit. Rule five, create a backup slot. Rule six, one big adventure, one little adventure. Rule seven, take one night for you. Rule eight, batch the little things. And rule nine, effortful before effortless. Let me know which ones you want explanations for.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so give yourself a bedtime, I think I’m a believer. I’ve had a couple of sleep doctors, and so, yeah, that’s huge. I think do it, I’m on board. I think there’s a clear why. Are there any tips, tricks, tactics that make that easier or more effective?

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, the reason I chose that as rule number one is because, yes, it is obvious, and also, it’s amazing how many people don’t do it, right? I saw a funny social media post today that somebody said, “I would do anything to get eight hours of sleep, except go to bed eight hours before I need to get up.” Right? And it’s so true.

People have all sorts of reasons of why they don’t get to bed on time. But it just a math problem. You need to figure out what time you wake up in the morning. Many adults, this is a set number, right? You have to get up for work, you have to get up for your family responsibilities. It’s not like there’s a whole lot of give there.

So, if that is set, the only variable that can move is the time you go to bed the night before. So, figure out how much sleep you need, count back from when you wake up, you’ve got your bedtime. Like, really, it’s just a math problem. But in order to make it stick a little bit better, there’s a couple things you can do.

One, most practically, set some sort of alarm for 30 to 45 minutes before your bedtime. So, you remind yourself to wind down. You need to brush your teeth, you need to lock your doors, so whatever it is you need to do so that you’re not remembering all those things right at your bedtime, and then having to push forward when you go to sleep by quite a bit.

But I think the key thing, one of the reasons people don’t go to bed on time is because that’s the time we have for ourselves, right? Like, that’s when your kids are in bed, or you’ve done your chores, or you’ve finished your work, you’re like, “Ah, now I can relax. Now, the world is mine. I can do whatever I want.” And who wants to cut that short and go to bed?

And so, what you need to do is make sure that you are having adequate leisure time, adequate me-time at other points in your life. And a lot of the Tranquility by Tuesday rules are aimed at doing just that, making sure that you have other cool stuff going on in your life, that you have other spots where you are doing things that you’re looking forward to so that you’re not getting to 11:00 p.m., or whatever your bedtime is, and thinking, “Oh, but I haven’t really had any time to relax. I haven’t had any time to do fun stuff. Let me just stay up a little bit later.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Yeah, I think that’s so dead-on. You’ve nailed it. And I’m thinking about when my wife had COVID, and I had full-time kid duty as well as trying to keep the business, at least, limping along a little bit, like, “Team, do everything. I’ll try to answer a few questions on email” kind of a situation. I remember it was jampacked.

And when those kids went to bed, it was like, “Man, I should go to bed now,” and yet I had, in that time of like zero me-time, I had the most overwhelming desire to play video games at 10:00 p.m. of my whole life, which was odd for me. I was like, “What is going on?” And that is what’s going on, Laura. Thank you for that.

Laura Vanderkam
You needed that time for yourself. You needed the me-time, I know. And so, and maybe that made sense and it could work for a week while she was recuperating, but if you find yourself doing that long term, well, it’s time to find some time for the video games at some other point in your life so that you feel like you get some fun.

That’s why we stay up late. We want our fun and we don’t want to be denied our fun, and the bedtime is what keeps us from doing it. We don’t do the bedtime, but future us will be so much happier if we do get to bed on time.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And what’s funny, when it comes to leisure, it’s almost like video games are almost like a junk food version of leisure, because I don’t really crave video games much, but then I was. It’s like I want to do the most, I don’t know, pointless, self-indulgent, low effort required of me, kind of enjoyable thing there is, as opposed to, “Let’s have a singing lesson right now.”

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, or let’s read Tolstoy. That was the other option.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. So, okay. All right. So, that’s exactly what’s going on. Give yourself a bedtime. And in order to pull that off, make sure you’re building in quality leisure time and me-time. Tell us about that. When it comes to making that happen, any parameters in terms of how we schedule that and select what the activity is?

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah. So, there’s two of the rules that I think are really getting at this idea. One is rule number seven, which is to take one night for you. And this can be such a transformative rule for people who are in the busy years of having young kids at home, building a career. Take one night, or the equivalent number of hours on a weekend, whatever you want, to do something that is not work and is not caring for family members. It is enjoyable just for you.

And, ideally, you would make a commitment to something that meets at the same time, every week it gets you out of the house. Because it’s a commitment, you will do it. You will do it even if life is busy. You will do it even if you’re tired. You will do it even if somebody else would prefer you be doing something else.

And so, I’m talking about things like singing in a choir, playing in a softball league, volunteering somewhere regularly, joining a regular social group, bowling league, whatever it is, but something that you are going to go to every single week, that you genuinely enjoy. And when you have this in your life, it can honestly, it can be, like, the structure of the whole week is now around this. It’s something you wind up looking forward to the whole time.

And many people are like, “Well, I want to take one night for me but I’m going to do something flexible. I’m going to do something…like, I’ll just read, or I will take a bubble bath, or something.” But the problem with those is that they can be done whenever. And so, if your boss wants you to work late on Tuesday night, well, you’re not going to be like, “Well, I have an appointment with my bubble bath.”

Pete Mockaitis
“I have my bubble bath schedule, sorry.”

Laura Vanderkam
“The bubble bath is waiting for me.” Or, your kid wants you to drive them to the mall, or you’re tired, or you just seem too busy and too much work, like you won’t do it. Whereas, if you are playing on a softball team, they need a second baseman, like you’re going to show up. And so, because of the commitment, you do this active form of self-care and you wind up so much happier afterwards. So, that’s the first one.

The second one that really helps with this is rule number nine – effortful before effortless. And this is about leisure time. Even the busiest people have some leisure time in their life. The problem is a lot of it occurs in either short spurts, or it is unexpected, it is uncertain in duration, and it may come at low-energy time.

So, at night after the kids go to bed, or you’re waiting for a phone call to start, you could be on Twitter for two minutes or 20 minutes. You can be watching Netflix even if you haven’t planned ahead and don’t have a babysitter. Like, these screen times fits all these constraints incredibly well, and so it winds up consuming the bulk of our leisure time, which is fine. There is nothing wrong with screen time.

The problem is in the abstract, many people they would prefer other forms of leisure, things like reading or hobbies or connecting with friends, and you don’t remember a lot of your screen time, like it doesn’t register that you are getting free time, and so you don’t count it, it doesn’t become part of your narrative, and you don’t really feel rejuvenated afterwards.

So, you want to choose leisure that looks like leisure. Like, you can’t be doing a Lego set and not tell yourself it’s leisure. Whereas, if you are on social media, in your mind you’re like, “Well, I’m only one app away from my email, so, really, I’m working.” That’s the kind of thing that goes through our brains. So, effortful before effortless means when a spot of leisure appears, challenge yourself to do just a few minutes of these more effortful forms of fun before you switch over to the effortless.

So, you’re picking up your phone, read an e-book for two minutes before you open Facebook. Kids go to bed. Do a puzzle for 10 minutes before you start watching Netflix. And one of two things happens. Either you get so into your effortful fun, you just keep going, like you just keep reading the book, and that’s great. But even if you don’t, like at least you would’ve gotten to do both. You will be more aware that you had this leisure time, and that can help you feel like you have a lot more time for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a great theme associated with being in your own narrative inside your head when stresses besiege you, and it feels like you don’t have the time, the energy, the resources, the emotional presence, the wherewithal, the oomph necessary to meet the demands of life and stuff, and then you have an extra level of layer of maybe resentment or irritability, like, “I don’t have any time for myself.” You have sort of an inoculation or a thread of hope to hold on to, which is like, “Well, you know what, I did six minutes of puzzle on Thursday, and I’m going to do it again this Thursday.”

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, “I have some time, it may not be as much as I want.” But there’s a very big difference between none and not as much as I want, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Laura Vanderkam
None is just defeatist. Like, you can’t do anything with that. That’s when we get into those spiraling thoughts of martyrdom or despair or burnout, all those things. But if it’s “Not as much as I want,” that suggests great questions right there that inspires some problem-solving. Like, “Well, if it’s not as much as I want, how can I make it more? How can I make good choices within the limited leisure time I do have so that I’m doing things that are the most rejuvenating?”

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m also thinking about, when you talked about one night for you, it can be the night, it could also be, as you said, a certain committed hours recurring on weekends. There seems to be a lot of emotional juice associated with the ritual itself, even if it’s tiny, like, “I’m going to drink this amazing coffee and do the, I don’t know, New York Times Wordle, or the Chess.com puzzle of the day, or whatever,” I don’t know.

Like, that in and of itself seems like it we would have a lot of inoculating benefit as opposed to, I guess, what I’m trying to say is the vibe inside is more like, “Ahh, this is the thing I’m doing for me, and it’s rejuvenating,” tranquil, if you will, as opposed to, “Aargh, here’s my four minutes of Facebook. I’m binging on it while the getting is good.” Do you know what I’m saying in terms of like the mindset and the vibe?

Laura Vanderkam
It just feels more chosen, more mindful, more intentional, and that’s really what we’re always getting at here, like making time more intentional, because when it is, you’re more likely to spend it on things that are meaningful or enjoyable. Whereas, when time is not intentional, then you spend it on whatever is right in front of you.

Pete Mockaitis
And there could be, I think, a little bit of, especially for people who like being awesome at their jobs, a little bit of a guilt factor in terms of, “I’m stealing this time for social media or whatever my low-quality effortless recreation, leisure is when I should be doing other stuff,” as opposed to, “I know this is what we’ve intentionally scheduled, and this is the time for my puzzle, or whatever, and it is right and just and proper that I engage in it. And I’m winning by doing so.”

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah. Well, I think people would be so much better off scheduling conscious breaks during the day where they do things that are truly breaks. So, let’s say you’ve got an eight-hour day, you can take a 30, 40-minute lunch, two 15-minute other breaks, go for a walk on one of them. Take the other one to do a puzzle or something. Take your lunch break to call a friend, whatever it happens to be.

But those things are things that are truly leisure, like they are, in fact, leisure. Whereas, people spend all kinds of time on stuff online that they didn’t really mean to but it’s just that it wasn’t necessarily actively chosen and it doesn’t look as much like leisure. And so, we have this thing, this hang-up about putting a flag on the ground, “I’m claiming this time for leisure” because when we’re doing things on our friends, we can even claim, like, “Oh, I have no time because it still looks like it’s something else. Like, we might be being productive,” I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, let’s hear a few of these other things. Plan on Fridays. What’s the story here?

Laura Vanderkam
Yes. So, planning on Fridays is really, honestly, one of my favorite rules. It’s something I’ve been doing for years. It’s really two points. The first and the most important point is to plan. I think everybody needs a designated weekly planning time. And this is a time where you look forward to the next week, ask yourself what is most important to you in three categories: career, relationships, and self. These are, hopefully, steps for your long-term goals, things you want to focus on in the next week. Ask where they can go. Figure that out.

Look at what else you have to do over the course of the week. Figure out any logistics that need to happen. Figure out any tough spots. See if there’s anything that you are genuinely looking forward to in the next week. But we do that, and look at the week as a whole so we can make broader, more holistic choices as we figure out how to use time mindfully. And doing this week after week, you can really make a complex life go fairly smoothly.

Why Fridays? So, a lot of people plan on Mondays, they plan on Sundays. These are all very popular time for planning. Friday has a couple things going for it. One, Friday afternoon is just often wasted time. Many people who work Monday through Friday jobs are kind of sliding into the weekend by Friday afternoon. It’s really hard to start anything new but you might be willing to think about what future you should be doing.

And by taking a few minutes to plan the upcoming week, you can choose what might be wasted, turn what might be wasted time into some of your most productive minutes. It’s also business hours. So, unlike planning on the weekend, for instance, if you need to make an appointment, if you need to set up a meeting, people are more likely to respond to you on Friday than they are on Sunday, most of the time. If you are managing people, they will probably respond to you on Sunday but you should ask yourself if you really want them doing that.

And then, it’s also, I think, the biggest reason though, some people plan their weeks on Sunday nights or Monday mornings, but even people who like their jobs can wind up with a little bit of trepidation on Sunday afternoon as they think about the upcoming week. And a lot of that trepidation is this anxiety over knowing there’s so much waiting for you but you don’t know how you’re going to deal with it. Like, you haven’t formulated a plan for getting done what you need to do. You don’t have a good grasp on what you do have to do.

If you end Friday with a plan for Monday, you can actually enjoy your days off quite a bit more because you’re not leaving yourself hanging, saying, “Oh, I have to figure that out in the future now.” No. You know. And so, you can relax.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And talk about batching.

Laura Vanderkam
Batching. Yeah, so I think a lot of us feel like we are sometimes drowning in small details of our lives. And, certainly, you can have these at work. There are those random forms from HR, responding to all those invitations, sending a few emails that aren’t urgent, aren’t that important but still have to be done, paying bills, things like that.

We can also wind up with tons of these in our personal lives, and the more people you have in your family that you’re responsible for, the more of these that wind up beating you: filling out that permission slip, signing the kids up for X, Y, or Z, or texting a babysitter for something two weeks from now, all these things we have to do. And it can feel like it will take over your life. Like, you’re never doing anything important but you’re always busy.

And the solution to this is to learn to recognize these not terribly important, not terribly urgent matters and to batch them into small chunks of time so that you can leave the rest of your schedule open for deeper work or for relaxation. So, at work, for instance, maybe you designate a small window in the afternoon when you don’t have a ton of energy to plow through all these tasks. Maybe on the home front, you can look at chores and things like that this way. Give yourself a two-hour window on Saturday where you’re going to get through all those tasks that you’re assigning yourself for the weekend.

And the upside of doing this is that, one, you get some efficiencies. Like, if you’ve got 30 minutes to deal with all these not terribly important, not terribly urgent little things on a workday, you’re not going to belabor that response to somebody, that you’ve only got 30 minutes for all of it. You’re not going to sit there and perseverate over it, like it’s going to get done, so you’re going to be more efficient.

But it also allows you, if you start thinking at some other point on the weekend, like, “Oh, I’ve got to clean my floors. I’ve got to clean my floors.” Like, no, no, there is a time for that. Saturday morning, we’ve got our chore window. That’s when we do it. The rest of the time is not that time. So, you can actually relax and have guilt-free leisure time, which I think is very elusive for a lot of people.

Pete Mockaitis
I see. Okay. And then, I’m curious about the backup time.

Laura Vanderkam
So, the backup slot, the best way to think of this is if people had been invited to any sort of outdoor event, like summer weddings, or maybe not weddings, or graduation ceremonies, or picnics, often on the invitation, they will have one of the most brilliant scheduling concepts ever invented. And I’m talking about the rain date, okay?

And a rain date, what’s going on here is that the organizers are acknowledging that much can go predictably wrong outside. It is right there in the rain date name, but there is no question whether the event will be rescheduled or for when. Like, it will be on the rain date. And so, if you want to go to this event, you’re not going to put anything unmovable in the second slot.

And by having a rain date, you vastly increase the chances of the original event happening even if not at the original time. And I think, in life, we need a lot more rain dates. When people get incredibly frustrated about wanting to do something, you’ve scheduled special one-on-one time with, say, one of your kids. Like, you’re going to go to this amusement park together on a Saturday, and then it’s like pouring down rain on that Saturday, or the kid is sick on that Saturday, or your spouse is unexpectedly called away to another town and you can’t leave all the other kids to go do this. It gets very frustrating.

These things happen at work, too. You set up a meeting with an employee that you’re going to give that celebratory feedback, tell him he’s working really hard, you’re so proud of him, and this is great, you’ve got his back, and people are quitting left and right. Very important to do that. And then, right before it is scheduled to happen, you have a major client emergency, and, of course, it gets bumped. That seems like the responsible thing to do, but we feel very frustrated.

So, if something is important to you, it doesn’t just need one spot. It needs a rain date. It needs a backup slot. And I know people say, “Well, that sounds incredibly unwieldy. Like, it’s hard enough to carve out one slot for stuff that I want to do, let alone two slots.” But, on some level, if it is truly important to you, then that’s what you need to do. But you can also approximate this by building more open space into your life in general.

So, one solution, many people try not to schedule too much other than they’re planning on Fridays because then they’ve got space for any emergencies that come up. If it bumps something from earlier in the week, it can get rescheduled to Friday. If that doesn’t work, maybe it’s like two afternoons a week that you try to leave mostly open, or an hour and a half every day that is mostly open.

But the idea is that if something gets bumped, it has a spot to go. Or, if something amazing comes up that you didn’t anticipate, some massive opportunity, you have the space to take it. You don’t have to shuffle everything else around or push this opportunity forward multiple weeks, in which case it might be gone. Like, you can actually seize it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very nice. And how about the one big adventure, one little adventure?

Laura Vanderkam
So, I have to say this is probably one of my favorite rules. I don’t really have a favorite rule, I like all of them, but this is probably a special one for me because I do think it is lifechanging to be in this mindset, which is that much of adult life becomes very much the same day to day after a while. Like, you get up, get everyone ready, you work, you collect everyone, go to dinner. If you’ve got kids, it’s like homework and bath and put them to bed, and then TV. You do this over and over again, and every day seems the same.

And there’s nothing wrong with routines. Like, routines make good choices automatic. But when too much sameness stacks up, whole years can just disappear into memory sinkholes, like, “I don’t even remember where the time went.” And you don’t remember where the time went because you have no good memories of it. Like, we don’t say, “Where did the time go?” when we remember where the time went.

So, one big adventure, one little adventure is about making memories. Every week, you want to do two things that are out of the ordinary. One big adventure means something that takes three to four hours, think like half a weekend day. One little adventure is something that takes less than an hour, it can be on a lunch break, weekday evening, just as long as it’s different, memorable.

And this rate of adventure is not going to exhaust or bankrupt anyone. It’s not going to upset the routines that exists but it is going to make life a lot more interesting. You’re not going to be like, “Ah, another week. Where did the week go?” You’re like, “No, no, that was the week we went mini-golfing. That was the week we tried out the new gelato place. That was the week we drove to see the colorful fall leaves at the beach.” Just something that would make it a little bit more different, enjoyable, memorable, and then time doesn’t feel like it’s slipping through your fingers.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, Laura, tell us, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Laura Vanderkam
Yes. So, I think these Tranquility by Tuesday rules are all designed to be very practical. They’re not rocket science. They are not difficult to do or get your head around it. It’s more about really trying them and seeing what happens as a result. And the way people did this project in my research is that they learned a new rule each week, and I think that’s a good idea. If somebody is going to read through the book, try each rule one at a time. Try to make it a habit, and then you can add the next one, and see how they sort of build on each other.

But the upside of doing this project is I am pretty sure that when you do these rules, you will, in fact, feel more satisfied with your time. That was the results of these 150 people I measured on these various dimensions of my time-satisfaction scale over nine weeks. Like, they do feel better. The rules helped. So, I’m pretty sure that they will for other busy folks as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now can we hear a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Laura Vanderkam
So, one of my favorite quotes is actually very, very short. It’s attributed to Ovid. I don’t know how you say it, but he said, “Dripping water hollows out stone.” And there’s a lot of variations of that “Dripping water hollows out stone, not by force but by persistence.”

But the idea being that when you do small things repeatedly, it does add up. And I’ve been seeing that a lot. I’ve been doing a couple of long-term reading projects since I talked to you last. Last year, I decided to read through War and Peace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Laura Vanderkam
So, one of my favorites, just because it’s so practical, it fits with what I think many of us have experienced, and I wound up citing this in rule number three, move by 3:00 p.m., is how much people’s energy jumps when they get tiny bits of physical activity. So, this one particular study, they had, when somebody is…a group of people, they rated their energy as three on a ten-point scale, so they’re feeling really weary and not very energetic when their levels were at a three.

They said, “Go do a couple minutes of physical activity.” So, they could go up and down the stairs in their office building, run around, whatever it was. And after a couple minutes of this, they basically gave themselves like a nine on a ten-point scale. And an hour later, they were still at six. So, five minutes, that’s all it takes.

People spend so much effort, money, unhealthy habits, trying to make ourselves have more energy, like, think of the number of people who reach for coffee or candy or cigarettes at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon because that’s how they’re going to get through the rest of the day. It’s like, well, going for a ten-minute walk is not only free. It’s healthy and it is pretty close to guaranteed to work.

I love that. Just one of those little miracles that’s available to us all the time, and yet we don’t necessarily avail ourselves of it as much as we should.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Laura Vanderkam
I have to say War and Peace. It really is a good one. I loved it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a tool?

Laura Vanderkam
And a tool. I am loving right now the fact that my phone works as a scanner.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s cool.

Laura Vanderkam
In case anyone here has not discovered this yet, if I’m the last person on the planet to figure this out, but maybe I’m not, I’ll share this. When you open the Notes app in an Apple phone, you can click on the picture and then one of the options is scan documents. And you hold up the phone, and it basically takes a scan of the document, and you can do multiple documents at the same time, and then email them automatically to people because it’s right on your phone.

That was such a wonderful time saver. When we were buying and selling our house over the past year because, of course, you have like a thousand documents involved in this that all have to get to the bank and get recorded and such, and I was like just scanning it with my phone, and it was wonderful. It was so much easier than in the old days.

Pete Mockaitis
That is cool. And a favorite habit?

Laura Vanderkam
So, I also, in addition to my reading projects, do a tiny bit of writing every day, my free writing. And I’ve done this in the past and have been a little bit free-form about it, so every day I write 100 to 200 words of something. And I’m always trying out ideas, thinking what might be interesting. This year, I decided to do it a little bit more focused and intensely.

So, I, every day, write 100 to 200 words about a character in the course of one day. So, it’ll be 365 little vignettes about a person over the course of one day. And I’m just seeing what I’d do with it. It’s been kind of fun. So, that’s one of my favorite habits right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Laura Vanderkam
“People are a good use of time.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Laura Vanderkam
So, we worry about how productive we are, how efficient we are with our time, and all that is great, but, ultimately, what we have is the people who go through life with us. And sometimes they are slightly less efficient than we would wish them to be, but, generally, if you are investing in a relationship and you feel that you are both growing closer as a result of the time you’re spending, then probably that was a wise use of those hours.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Laura Vanderkam
You can come visit my website LauraVanderkam.com, which I have everything about my books there, my podcast, and I’m blogging usually three to four times a week, so you can read my observations on life, productivity, and everything else.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Laura Vanderkam
I think anyone can benefit from tracking their time, ideally, for a week, even a couple days is good. Many people have to bill time for their jobs or they get paid by the hours, so you’re somewhat familiar with how you’re spending your work hours. But try tracking all your time because, partly, it helps to see that there is time outside of work. Usually, even the people who are working very long hours have some amount of time, and that can kind of change your narrative of time that is available to you.

But if you aren’t really sure what your work weeks look like, this is helpful, too, because it allows you to say, “Well, how many hours do I tend to work?” And if you know the denominator then you can decide what proportion you want to devote to different things. But if you don’t know that number, it’s a little bit harder to make those choices in a smart manner. So, knowing where the time goes is really the first step to spending it better.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Laura, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck and lots of tranquility.

Laura Vanderkam
Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me back.

795: How to Stop Being Crazy Busy and Take Back Your Time with Zena Everett

By | Podcasts | One Comment

 

Zena Everett reveals the time-wasters to drop in order to make time for what matters.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The top things slowing us down at work 
  2. The questions to ask for effective prioritization
  3. How to say no nicely 

 

About Zena

Leadership Coach and Speaker Zena Everett is the author of Mind FlipTake the Fear out of Your Career and the award winning Crazy Busy Cure. 

Originally a recruitment entrepreneur, Zena sold her business in 2007 then studied an MSc in Career Management and Coaching. She then took further postgraduate qualifications in psychological coaching and leadership with neuroscience (MIT Sloan Business School). She has coached on the Executive MBA Programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and is a member of the Associate Faculty at Henley Business School. 

 

Resources Mentioned

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Zena Everett Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Zena, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Zena Everett
Delighted to be here. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’re talking productivity and time stuff, which is a favorite topic of mine, as well as listeners. And I love your book title so much The Crazy Busy Cure: A productivity book for people who don’t have time to read productivity books. Please lay it on us, Zena, what do you mean by crazy busy? And how is your book sort of distinctive in that it’s for those who don’t have time to read such books?

Zena Everett
Yeah. And I’m nervous about talking about productivity because that sounds like we’re trying to get people to do even more and more, and I’m not sure we are, really. I think we’re getting people to separate the meaningful from the meaningless. But I’m a coach, and my clients kept saying to me, “Oh, yeah, I’m really crazy busy. I’m crazy busy,” and it just was kind of going through our head all the time. And I thought, “This isn’t a good thing.”

You know, the type of person, they’d be late for a session, and everything would kind of be thrown across the table, and they haven’t thought, and they have no time to think, and I’d been asked to coach them because they were causing bottlenecks for everybody else in the organization. And I just thought, “Gosh, this is really interesting. Why are people so crazy busy? Is it them?” and it is to a certain extent, but it’s also a systemic thing. So, that’s what I got really interested in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, your book is for folks who don’t have time to read such books. I’m curious, is there a particular…where my mind goes in reading that is thinking about sort of like a time ROI, and Chris Bailey talks about this, in terms of like minutes spent on a thing will yield more minutes back to you for having done so. Are there some particular insights or tools or tactics that are really transformational along these lines?

Zena Everett
Even when you say things like that, it makes me get a bit stressed because that’s sort of minute ROI and all those kinds of things. What I realized is that I found some great research by Bain, actually, where I know where you were a long time ago. So, what they talked about, this whole concept of organizational drag, so I realized that crazy busyness is a thing and it’s got a name, which I call productivity drag.

And these are all the things that kind of slow down the system, that makes it really hard to get any work done. And that is excessive complexity and collaboration, so we want all organizations to be inclusive, but having too many people around the table just means you’ve got too many competing opinions and competing agendas, and often nobody there who’s strong enough to align those and ask the right questions.

So, there’s too much complexity, digitization – amazing because this is how we’re doing this, but sometimes it can layer a layer of fake work, crazy busy work on top of the real work, and I definitely put messaging and teams and social media in there. And then there’s excessive organizational complexity, where there are just far too many systems and processes.

And then overservicing, actually. That’s the fourth, which I realize sometimes I do. I overservice some clients who actually, in terms of ROI, I don’t get that much back. And that can happen when you’re in a business partnering role. So, I think you’ve got those kinds of systemic organizational factors that slow us down. And then you’ve got our own ability to not say no, possibly, or please everybody, all that stuff that gets us here in the words of Marshall Goldsmith, but don’t get us there.

So, I think you combine the two, and that’s why it’s just so hard to get anything done. And you know as well, Pete, that we are switching all the time, aren’t we? Most of our tasks just take a couple of minutes. We’re switching, switching all the time rather than actually doing deep work. And there’s umpteen things being written about deep work and flow, but that’s the holy grail of this stuff, isn’t it?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay. So, that makes sense in terms of a cocktail for crazy busyness if you’ve got some organizational drag things going on, a bunch of complexity and collaboration, and overdoing it, and then our own difficulties internally putting together, and there you go, crazy busy, here we are. So, I’m curious, where do you recommend folks start? If they find themselves in a crazy busy situation and we want to get out in a jiffy, what do you recommend as some of the first key steps that make a world of difference?

Zena Everett
I always think our grandparents could run this kind of work because it’s so obvious. It’s first principles, isn’t it? I think it’s going back to people to say, “Actually, what am I really measured on here? What’s my job description? When I’m next in front of my boss or a promotion board or something like that, what do I want to talk about that I’ve actually achieved? And does how I run my role and spend my days reflect that?” because very often it doesn’t.

You know this, we sacrifice our priorities on the altar of everybody else’s urgent demands. So, I say to my clients, “Right. Actually, what is the difference between you and an outstanding performer? What are they achieving? What’s the gap? That’s where you need to focus your time.” So, all that stuff you say yes to, well, we can spend a lot of time saying yes to discretionary activities, all the other things that come our way, all those curve balls, some of which are career-enhancing because they’re interesting, or we’re learning, or they give us access to new networks but, actually, me making you more crazy busy, because I haven’t finished my work, and I say, “Well, look, Pete, would you mind?” isn’t a good thing.

So, that’s why I say, right, just take a step back actually and slow things down to go faster, and actually work out, “What is the top level of my job description?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Zena, can you tie that together for us with an inspiring story of someone who escaped crazy busyness by following such a process?

Zena Everett
I’ve got lots of examples, actually, so maybe I should sort of kind of talk about Captain Fantastic. So, I think my typical client would be somebody who got promoted, maybe they’ve been great at their job, they’ve always been hot on execution, worked harder than everybody else, long hours, just delivered. If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, all that kind of stuff.

And then they’re doing really well at the job, and somebody says, “Hey, look, here’s an intern. Take them on. They know nothing. They’re clueless. Well done,” and nobody ever says to that person, “Right. You’re already spending 120% of your hours doing your job.” Nobody ever says, “Right. This is how you need to make your job more efficient to find time for managing those people.”

Anyway, invariably, they do, and then they end up having a team around them, and that’s often my absolute definition of a crazy busy client. It’s somebody on that sweet spot who’s managing their own contribution but they’re running a team as well, and they probably got a team of mixed ability, maybe some people they’ve inherited or they’re brand new and so on.

And those are the people that I would love to coach, and I have a really robust discussion with to say, “Right. You need to go back and talk to your boss about how much time you should be spending on your own work, and how much time you should be spending on management.” And we don’t talk about time in that respect. I think it’s rare.

Our manufacturing cousins would be everything is timed on the production line, isn’t it? We’re really sure about how long it takes to do when, and everything is fairly timed. Whereas, it’s rare that somebody says, “That report should take you 45 minutes. If you just do it once, do it properly, get it done, it’s about 45 minutes, and this is what good practice looks like.”

So, we’re nervous about micromanaging people, that’s what managers say to me all the time, “Oh, I really don’t want to micromanage people” But, actually, I think we’ve got to be about old school about this, and give some people some sense about how to structure their days, how long tasks should take, and get them to put some kind of rigor and discipline in them.

Because, at the moment, what we know is that work is just cannibalizing into people’s personal time. We’re getting our tasks done but we have this low level of anxiety, hopefully, only low level, no worse than that, because we always feel anxious because there’s just so much to do and we never get to inbox zero, do we, or whatever it is, and there’s always more projects, and there’s more things we can be doing, and never mind all the liking and posting and all that kind of crazy nonsense.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s a great tip right there in terms of when it’s knowledge work, it can be super fuzzy with regard to you can do a report in 45 minutes, you could do a report in four hours, and I find those guidelines quite helpful, myself, both on the giving and the receiving end because sometimes it really is essential. I’ve spent all day on an email before, and it was absolutely the right choice. That email was mission critical and involved tens of thousands of dollars, so felt great about that.

And the other times, you can go way overboard on something that is like, “No, you just have to kind of check the box so that we know that’s checked, and then we’re fine,” or, “Well, this is going to be edited by six more people anyway down the road so no need to stress it too much because it’s going to be revised like the Dickens so just go ahead and get the rough outline and structure starter point in play and then we’re good to go.”

So, yeah, I think that is helpful as opposed to micromanage-y. And do you have an idea, or thought, or guideline for when does something become micromanagement versus is it just good wholesome quality guidance that is useful and appreciated?

Zena Everett
I like a bit of wholesome quality guidance but I think once we get people cured from crazy busyness, they’re much better managers, and then they’ve got time to say, “Pete, what can I back off and let you get on with?” I think that’s the thing is to have that continuous conversation. And when people are maybe working partly from home and partly in the office and juggling all that kind of stuff, sometimes we need more help than people expect, sometimes we need less, so you can’t overcommunicate on this kind of stuff.

But my real bug bear that really drives me mad is this whole culture of continuous synchronous working. So, this feeling the need to send you Teams Messenger, or WhatsApp, or something, and you respond to that immediately, and I think that is a thing that really slows people down because, aside those occasional days when you spend a whole day on an email, and you probably need to take a step away and come back and look at it again, and maybe sleep on it, all those things, that’s fine.

But, fundamentally, most of us, as you very well know, we’re just switching tasks all day, aren’t we, because people need us, and people need us now. So, I get my clients to have more meetings, which they aren’t that happy about, but better. I’d get them to put some real rigor into their meetings and sharpen up.

Have you ever said to somebody, “Oh, look, do that meeting for me?” and you think, “Great. I’ve saved myself a couple of hours there.” And then the person comes out of the meeting, and you say, “All right. How did it go? What happened?” and they brief you in about two sentences, don’t they, “Oh, yeah, we did this and Jim is doing this. That’s it.”

So, I’m always curious by how my clients can spend so much time in really rubbish meetings that they shouldn’t be in, but they don’t have time to say to you, “Really liked how you write that report. Actually, you can try and make it quicker now,” or whatever it is. So, there’s definitely something about communicating properly once rather than having this continuous stream of consciousness where we feel we should be connected to our teams, well, almost 24/7 in some cases. This drip, drip, drip of Teams messages.

So, I think if we can kind of eliminate that and get people to work away on their own, do some deep thinking, work in flow, all the kind of basic productivity stuff that we’ve all been reading about, and then come back, and then connect and have proper rigorous meetings, life would be so much better. But there seems to be a lot of wasted time in inefficient meetings that we could do something about.

And I think that we need to use technology better so that it’s just a kind of briefing rather than a discussion, or a celebration, or a brainstorm, or decisions to be made, obviously, then there is no reason for that to be a meeting. Our manufacturing colleagues would never get everybody to down tools at the same time because it’s such an expensive investment of time but we’re frivolous with our time. That’s a very long answer, isn’t it?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was agreeing with you with regard to that manufacturing analogy. It does feel kind of silly to say, “Okay, hey, everyone, stop. Stop things you’re doing, put down the chainsaw or kind of whatever is going on there, and we’re going to chat about this thing.” It’s just sort of a head scratch, like, “What? Why? What’s happening right now? And why? This doesn’t seem so critical. Is there an emergency? Like, is something catastrophic occurring?”

It’s fuzzy and yet, in professionals, that world is still plenty expensive to have whatever, six, ten people in a room all at the same time, and there is that interruption of flow factor in there as well. So, that really puts in the context that, “Yeah, those meetings are destructive.” So, I’m curious, when you mentioned people-pleasing and not saying no, do you have any pro tips on how we professionals can do that better? How does one decline a meeting politely, diplomatically, effectively in a none career-limiting fashion?

Zena Everett
Well, how do you do it, because you must do it all the time?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I sort of have the luxury of being the owner/CEO, and so there’s nobody above me to ask me things. So, then it’s like this great mass of the external world which I have license to engage or disengage as I please. So, in a way, I’m spoiled and I don’t have that much of a problem.

Zena Everett
Do you ever feel guilty if you say no to people?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, my wife, I would.

Zena Everett
You should never say no to your wife, ever. What are you saying no to your wife about? Let’s talk about that. Let’s get your wife on.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess when I was an employee, I did, it’s like, “Oh, shucks, I’m invited to this meeting. Oh, I don’t really think it’s viable for me to be there? How do I say this just right?” so I did have those consternations and worries. So, what do you recommend to folks inside organizations?

Zena Everett
I hate that word stakeholder. It’s really kind of cliché, isn’t it? But I think you have to work out who your best stakeholders are. Everybody in this kind of field of time management, we’ve got Pomodoros, or frogs, or something, and I love that antelope and field mice analogy. Do you know that one?

So, you’ve got to know who your main stakeholders are. And I love the analogy of the lions who only chase antelopes. So, they know that they can’t spend their whole day chasing after little furry critters because it’s not worth it. The calorific intake that they need, they wouldn’t get from lots of small things. It’s not worth it. They just let them go.

Whereas, we love to chase anything, don’t we? We love the dopamine hit of crossing something off our list, and our brains can’t distinguish between whether that’s a significant thing, an antelope that we can feed off or if it’s just a load of small field mice. And I am as guilty as anybody of writing small stuff down just to have the pleasure of crossing them off.

So, we’ve got to know who our antelopes are, and so that can be significant tasks, when we’ve got some big goals and we’ve broken them down, yes, sounded stuff, but, actually, we also need to know who those antelope people are as well. Apologies to any vegans who are finding this distasteful. But I think you got to know who the important people are.

And you can’t just jump and overservice people, and you’ve got to know who to say, “Yes, great. I’d really love to get involved,” and go through that thought process, “What’s good for my career? What am I trying to achieve? Where do I need to increase my visibility? If I do this, is this going to give me a new skill? Is this going to give me access to new networks?”

Does that sound calculating? I think we’ve got to be sensible about this, and some people are better than others. There’s so much about saying no, isn’t there? You just say no nicely. Don’t over-explain. Our Royal Family have got an expression of saying, “Never explain. Never complain.” And I think that’s really good. So, the more detail you go into about why you haven’t got five minutes, clearly, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. But you can just say, “Look, I can’t do it.”

But I try and get, I run these “Crazy Busy” sessions, and I teach people, just say, to sequence, “I can’t do that now but I’ll do it, don’t worry. The first available space I’ve got is 8:00 o’clock tomorrow,” or whenever, “Wednesday week and I’ll do it then,” whatever. Hopefully, they’ll disassociate themselves by then. So, I think we need to get into the habit of pushing back, and I think we just need to say, “Yes, I can, and this is when I can fit it in.”

Again, our manufacturing colleagues, if I came to you, and said, “Look, I don’t know, here’s my test tube. Test it in your testing laboratory,” you wouldn’t say, “Of course, I’ll stop the whole line, all those other test tubes will go crashing off the sides.” You just say, “Yes, of course. We start again at 3:00 o’clock, and yours will be the first on there.” So, we’ve just got to approach our work in the same way, and say, “Yeah, I can schedule it in then. How’s that?” And if that doesn’t work, then find somebody else to do it the nicest possible way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, we got that great clarity associated with who the people who really matter, and what is the work, and the projects that really matter, and the things you’re being judged or graded upon. Cool. And so then, I’d love for you to elaborate on the just say no nicely. Do you have any favorite phrases, scripts, verbiage?

Zena Everett
I’ve learnt, one of my clients taught me to say, “I’ve noticed…” so that’s a very nice way of dealing with things because I think the people that cause the greatest problems, actually, are the ones we can’t say no to. We soon learn to say, “Yeah, I can’t do that now. I’ll do it later,” or, “Actually, I really can’t get involved in this. I don’t have the capacity.”

But the ones that are the real problems are the, “You sending me a message, say, at 7:30 every morning when you wake up, saying, ‘I need this for a meeting at 9:00,’ and you’re my boss, and I’m terrified of you, and so I don’t know how to deal with it, and I’m hardwired to do it straightaway.” So, “I’ve noticed…” is a really nice way to start a conversation, to say, “Pete, I’ve noticed that you’re often sending me emails at 7:30 asking for information. Oh, that’s no problem. I love doing it for you, but…” okay, maybe not quite as revolting as that.

“But how about I have sight of your diary. Once a week, you can show me what meetings you’ve got coming up and then I can make sure I schedule time to get all that information from you?” So, “I’ve noticed…” is a really nice way to talk about someone’s behavior and how you want it to change rather than making it personal.

So, I think that’s a conversation-starter to say, “How can we do this and get a bit more organized?” because crazy busy people are a real problem for everybody else, because they’re multitasking, they’re always missing deadlines, everything at the last minute, they’re perfectionists often so that slows things down because perfectionists are more likely to procrastinate. They cause problems for everybody else, so we almost need to learn how to have conversations with crazy busy people so we’re not crazy busy by default. It’s not pushed down the chain.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, let’s say we’ve done all those things masterfully in terms of we’ve gotten clarity on what’s important and who’s important, and pushed back effectively on, “I’m not going to that meeting. I’ve noticed this behavior. I’m going to schedule some time to do these things.” If we’ve tamed the external world, what are some of the top things we got to focus in on with our internal world?

Zena Everett
Okay, I’ve gone on the external world. Often, when I talk to people about what sucks up their time the most, they talk about emails and messages; so emails, meetings, and messages, systems, processes, inter-team communication, networking, so I just add to your list. I would usually encourage people to have a talk about internal communication, like, “Can we stop emailing each other? Can we just talk? Can we go and have lunch and get all this dealt with rather than, again, this kind of James Joyce stream of consciousness all day?”

I think our internal world is often that people-pleasing, those messages we’ve internalized, “If you work harder than everybody else, you’ll do well,” the stuff. We look at maybe our parents, caregivers, people from our early lives that we’ve observed, they worked incredibly hard, they’ve done well. Actually, the world is slightly different now. It’s the thinking that makes the difference. It’s the creativity, it’s the innovation, it’s the space to lead, it’s time to think for us.

So, I think we’ve got to realize that, actually, the whole MO for getting us to a certain level in our careers has to shift when we want additional responsibility because we can’t run around like a headless chicken looking stressed. So, I think it’s some real self-talk about, again, like I said, Marshall Goldsmith is, “What got me there,” I love that expression, “won’t get me here,” thinking, “What does a high-performer in my organization look like? What are people saying about me? Am I giving off a vibe that I take it all in my stride, I’ve got capacity for other people? And have I got time to network?”

I’m interested in your thoughts on this, but I think that’s so important for career success, and I’ve heard you talk about this. I think people who got their heads down in their job and not networking, they’re not saying, “Pete, what are you working on? That sounds really interesting. Let’s have a chat about it. Let’s grab a coffee,” they’re not just reaching out. They’ve got their heads down, and, actually, in most organizations that I work in, those aren’t the people that do well.

The people that do well have got their heads up and they’re visible and they’re picking very carefully the projects that they get involved in because they want to be seen to come up with the gamechangers. But our brains fight against this, and it can be in our DNA just to do lots of busy stuff. And then there’s all the real kind of mother hen managers, I talk about in the book, that are the ones that are…they remember everyone’s birthday, they do all the emotional labor, they’re collecting the cups after the meetings.

They’re doing other people’s work for them because they don’t want to share out across the team because they’re worried that their colleagues are too busy, all that kind of stuff. And, actually, they’re the ones that crash and burn. They simply don’t get promoted.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Those are some good flags and watchouts there. Yes, I think I’ve noticed that as well as those with their heads up and around and aware, being thoughtful and selective, and networked and building relationships, do often seem to be advancing better than those who have their head down. And, I guess I’m an extrovert, but it sounds like more fun to me as well in terms of how you’re operating. So, you mentioned self-talk, are there some key mantras or I guess maybe cognitive distortions to tackle head on or how do we get our heads right?

Zena Everett
Well, I’m a bit of a “Just don’t do it” person. I think people really have to learn to say no to stuff, and that’s a big…like, we’ve just talked about. But, actually, even if they’re not saying no to somebody else, just think, “It’s really tempting for me to read that, get involved in that, but, actually, that’s not a priority. My time is finite,” so I think that’s important.

The voice that I want my clients to hear from me, “Why am I doing that? What’s my highest and best use here?” And the way that we manage our money, that idea of best use of treasury, is the same thing, “What is the highest and best use of my time? What is it that only I can do?” It’s a great question if you’re a manager, “Out of everything I can do, what should I be doing? What is it that only I can do on my team? And that’s where I should be adding the most value because that’s my greatest contribution to the business.”

So, I think those are the kind of reflective questions that we need to go through, “And why am I doing this? If this is my hourly rate, why am I doing this? Shouldn’t somebody be doing it?” We know when people are supposed to be more strategic and not get involved in the weeds. Sometimes that’s a bit scary because they think, again, I’m talking about guilt a lot.

But that can almost feel indulgent, couldn’t it? I’m really thinking about this kind of stuff where it’s actually, “Should I just be on the phone or getting involved in this kind of bring stuff to show that I’m willing,” but, actually, businesses want people they develop to spend more time being strategic and more time thinking. So, that can be something that people really need to talk themselves into to think, “Look, this is okay. I might be right at the top of my comfort zone and really enjoying it, and it feels good.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, we’ve got some good tidbits here. I guess I’m curious, having worked with so many different coaching clients, can you share a couple of the approaches, tips, tools, interventions that have been just the most transformational and yet also easy?

Zena Everett
Okay, I’m thinking about this. I love the whole towering strengths exercise which, again, is from Marshall. I’m doing PR for Marshall Goldsmith, it seems like.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we had him on the show recently. He’ll appreciate the reverberation there. So, let’s talk about that.

Zena Everett
So, he has a great exercise where you work out what your towering strengths are. So, that could be, “I’m a really hard worker,” and then what happens when that goes into overdrive, “Right. Well, actually, I’m a complete control freak. I really don’t like to leave anything not done exactly right. I don’t want any loose ends.”

So, when my towering strengths have been super hardworking, when it goes into overdrive, means that I just throw myself at everything in. I don’t stop and think, “I think hard work is going to get me through.” So, the towering strength versus overdrive exercise is really helpful because our towering strength is often what creates a kind of glass ceiling for us later on in organizations because that becomes the problem.

So, maybe, I mean, you and I work for ourselves. I know my towering strength is that I’m pretty strong, I’m very independent. When, actually, that towering strength goes into overdrive, it means that I can be a little bit slow in saying, in asking for help and getting support because I always think I can figure everything out on my own. So, that’s an exercise that I think can be really interesting for people.

And then I do love all those magic questions. If you went back into work tomorrow and everything was fantastic, what would be different? I think that tends to shift people because they say, “I’m stuck and I don’t know,” but you just kind of take them to the sunny opens and get them to look back, then they come up with ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Zena, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Zena Everett
Yeah. So, any kind of Productivity 101 is about scheduling. If it’s not scheduled, it doesn’t happen. So, I get people to pimp their calendars because our calendars are full of meetings, and full of calls but they don’t have tasks in there. So, I get them to understand their priorities, which is the P, to insert into their schedules, it’s got to be meaningful, the M in PIMP, because otherwise they’ll let somebody bump up their tasks and take priority.

And then the final P in PIMP is for prompts, which we know that people have got to have a prompt so that they don’t have…to remove the element of choice, “So, I finish doing this meeting. I’m going to put the kettle on, make a coffee, and then I’m going to go straight in and do that, write that bit of report, or whatever it is, for an hour. I’m going to set myself a timer and do it,” to remove as many options as possible.

So, I make people pimp their schedules, and actually schedule tasks in so that we feel that we have some greater sense of control because what I’ve noticed with people is they’ve got no time for actual work. They’ve just got so many meetings, so many different demands that they’re doing. They don’t have time to actually stop and think and do some deep work, so that’s going to be scheduled. So, your antelopes have got to be scheduled and also your field mice.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Zena Everett
Well, I have to say I like, “Just don’t do it.” That really works for me. And I tend to think about that first, “Why am I doing this?” Yeah, so just don’t do it. That’s the opposite of “Just do it” that we attempted to do. I think a lot of brain, just doing it, causes organizational drag, “Why are we actually doing this?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Zena Everett
I love Dunning-Kruger. Shall we talk about Dunning-Kruger?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it.

Zena Everett
I love the Dunning-Kruger Effect which is a cognitive bias. So, a hapless criminal, I think in the ‘90s, went and robbed two banks with just lemon juice on his face. And he robbed one bank and then another one thinking that he’d never get caught because lemon juice is an invisible ink. And, of course, he was arrested swiftly.

So, Messrs. Dunning and Mr. Krueger, psychologists, thought, “How can somebody so hapless have so much confidence?” So, they discovered this thing called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, they did various research on students and realized that the people with the least ability had the most confidence, and vice versa. So, they call it Dunning-Kruger effect, so the less you know, the more confident you are.

And, of course, the opposite of Dunning-Kruger is that when somebody becomes an expert in something, sometimes they can have a bit of a confidence wobble because then they’re worried that, actually, they realize all the stuff that they don’t know because they’re benchmarking themselves against their peers who are other experts.

So, I see in mid-life that sometimes people have confidence wobbles, or they call it impostor syndrome, “All of a sudden, I was great at my job. And now I’m feeling a little bit hesitant and losing confidence.” So, I love telling them about Dunning-Kruger, “Actually, that’s really good because you just realized you know what you don’t know.” So, I’m a bit anti all this stuff, particularly, thanks to all kinds of stereotypes, but there’s lots of coaching for women around the impostor syndrome, “Oh, just relax about that. Don’t put yourself in those situations.”

I say to my clients, “That’s great if you’re feeling like an impostor. That shows that you’re really pushing something, you’re doing something new, but it’s also that you’re just realizing that maybe you need a little bit more preparation time to really feel confident. You need to put some more hours in but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep on going.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. And a favorite book?

Zena Everett
Okay. So, I’m a big fan of Alan Weiss. I love his Million Dollar Consulting book, I love his Money Talks, I love his kind of raw ambition and confidence and aspiration. I think it’s great. I recommend his books frequently. So, he’s talking about this whole idea about charging for what you’re worth.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool?

Zena Everett
I don’t think I have a favorite tool. In fact, I’m quite nervous about people who like a software for everything because I think a whiteboard, where you map your projects with some really good Sharpies and some great Post-It notes so you’ve got visual management is a fantastic tool. So, there you go, an old-fashioned whiteboard where I can actually see it. That really works for me. I’m neurotypical. I’m much more visual than I am, so give me a whiteboard and a spreadsheet any day, though I think that works.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Zena Everett
I’d like to come up with some great productivity habit. I’m very motivated by a great cup of coffee, so that’s my favorite reward. Rewarding myself with a good cup of coffee.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Zena Everett
“Why am I doing this?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Zena Everett
My website is ZenaEverett.com, and I send out a monthly article on productivity and career success. So, if people want that, they can either sign up for my website or just drop me an email and we’ll add them to our system.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Zena Everett
Work out what your antelopes are and make sure that your diary reflects your priorities, not other people’s.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Zena, it’s been a pleasure. I wish much luck and very little crazy busyness.

Zena Everett
Thank you. You, too.

785: How to Improve Focus and Productivity through Smarter Deadlines with Christopher Cox

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Christopher Cox discusses how to leverage deadlines to curb procrastination, improve productivity, and deliver better results.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The worst possible deadline you can give yourself 
  2. The trick restaurateurs and theater artists use to consistently deliver quality
  3. The trick to making self-imposed deadlines more motivating 

 

About Christopher

Christopher Cox has written about politics, business, books, and science for The New York Times MagazineGQHarper’sWired, and Slate. In 2020, he was named a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a visiting scholar at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. He was formerly the chief editor of Harper’s Magazine and executive editor of GQ, where he worked on stories that won the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN Literary Award for Journalism, and multiple National Magazine Awards. His book The Deadline Effect is out in paperback now.  

Resources Mentioned

Christopher Cox Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Christopher, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Christopher Cox
Hi, Pete. Yeah, thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into some wisdom from your book The Deadline Effect: Inside Elite Organizations That Have Mastered the Ticking Clock, but, first, I want you to regale us with some tales from Everest base camp and/or summiting Kilimanjaro.

Christopher Cox
Oh, wow, yeah, that takes me back. That was one long trip that I took between college and grad school. I went all the way around the world, and all sorts of things happened on those trips. So, climbing Kilimanjaro is maybe the most dramatic story because it’s a multi-day journey, and on the last day, you have to climb up, at least on the route that I took, a very steep, I don’t want to call it a cliff, but it’s almost a cliff, and it’s covered in ice and snow, and it snowed that night that I was supposed to climb.

And you start off at about 2:00 in the morning. And part of the reason you start it at 2:00 in the morning is you want the ice to be frozen. During the day, it starts to melt and it gets slippery. And so, we’re climbing up the ice and I was with one other person, my guide, and after about 30 minutes or 45 minutes up this steep, steep expanse, his flashlight goes out and he asked me, “Do you have your flashlight?” And I said, “Yes, I do.” And then we had about 40 seconds of that flashlight before it went out, too.

And so, we did the final three hours of the climb in the cold and the snow and the steep in complete darkness, which was frightening at first, but then basically he said, “I want you to put your feet exactly where my feet are and we’ll just climb up that way.” And we made it and we reached the top exactly as the sun rose over the savannah, and it was a feeling of pure euphoria.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome. Cool. Well, so digging into the book a bit, can you share any particularly surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made when putting together The Deadline Effect?

Christopher Cox
Yes. So, the book, I sort of did two modes of research to write the book. One was reading as many studies as I could on procrastination and deadlines and productivity that I could. And the other was I went out and did a bunch of reporting, so I ended up embedding in nine different organizations and learning how they worked.

And so, each of those two paths of research led me to different insights. I would say that just from reading academic literature, the first thing that jumped out at me, which I saw replicated in study after study, was how powerful shortening a deadline can be. One of the very first papers I read was about the US Census and they were trying to figure out how to get more people to reply to the mail-in census. So, not when a person comes through a door but just the thing you get in the mail.

And it turned out that if you can increase the response rate for the mail-in census by one percentage point, it would save the US government $75 million per percentage point. So, there’s a big motivation to get more people to mail these things in. And so, they did some research and studies and experiments to see how they could increase that response rate.

And one of the things they discovered, which seemed counterintuitive to me at first, was if you actually give people less time to reply, they’re more likely to do so. And so, they did an experiment where they had two groups. They both had the same deadline to return the mail-in response to the census, but one group had a week less to do it.

And the group that had a week less to do it was more likely to turn it in. And there are all sorts of other positive benefits they saw, the data was higher quality, if the people had less time to turn it in, too. And so, I read that and that really got me intrigued, and that’s when I started to sort of delve in deeper into this subject.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is good. And so, you know, it’s funny, with these sorts of things, you can, after the fact, 20/20 hindsight, say, “Oh, yeah. Well, of course, if they don’t have to say, ‘Oh, I could do that. I need some time over the next few weeks,” is very different than, “Oh, shoot, I better get on this now,” while they have the piece of paper in hand. So, I guess I see the psychological effect at work, at least that’s my speculation. Is that the driving force there?
Christopher Cox
Yeah, I think that’s right. There is a tendency to sort of put things off into the last minute if you possibly can. And I often say, like, the very worst deadline that you can give to yourself is to say, “As soon as possible.” It’s better to have it be concrete, and even if it’s further off than you might want it to be. So, as soon as possible, and you feel like, “Okay, that means I need to get it done tomorrow.” But if you actually set a concrete date of, “No, it’s going to get done in a week,” that tends to be more effective in getting you to actually complete whatever project it is you’re trying to get done.

And so, one of the other things that came up in sort of looking at how adjusting the timing of the deadline can increase your ability to complete a project was I read all these papers on procrastination. And procrastination affects us all to greater or lesser extents. One economist I read called it sort of the universal human problem.

But I read this interesting paper called “Procrastination of Enjoyable Experiences.” So, you think you procrastinate things you don’t want to do, but it turns out we all tend to procrastinate things that we do want to do. And there are two social scientists named Susanne Shu and Ayelet Gneezy, and they devised this pretty ingenious experiment.

They gave out coupons for a free slice of cake. So, again, this is not something that you would think people would want to avoid. And one of the coupons expired in three weeks, and a different version of the coupon expired in two months. And it turned out that the people who had three weeks, so more than a month less time to get their free cake, were five times more likely to use their coupon.

Pete Mockaitis
Five times.

Christopher Cox
Yeah, like a dramatic effect of shortening the deadline there. And I think it’s just what you say, with that urgency provided by the deadline, and not giving people time to be distracted from what they’re supposed to be doing, you’re going to increase your likelihood of getting things done.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, these are tantalizing insights right there. If we were to zoom out a bit, what would you say is the core message, thesis, big idea behind The Deadline Effect?

Christopher Cox
Well, in terms of what I saw in the organizations that I studied, there were two big conclusions that sort of tie everything together. The first was successful organizations take deadlines seriously, and that sounds very simple but that is step number one. You have to take them seriously. You have to set a deadline. You have to make it concrete.

And the second thing that united them was they set up their deadlines in the organization so that no individual employee ever faced a deadline alone, so they increased what social scientists called interdependence. And so, that meant that procrastination, more or less, gets taken out of the equation because there are so many different enforcement mechanisms on any individual person trying to get something done that they’re goaded into action. They’re kept to schedule because so many other people are relying on them.

Pete Mockaitis
Fascinating. So, while an individual might have a deadline for himself or herself, there is a broader deadline that a team or a collection of contributors is all working towards, thus ensuring that the individual is able to get it done so that the team gets it over the line by the date. Is that accurate?

Christopher Cox
Yeah, that is accurate. And so, the first place that I saw this came from my own working life before I wrote this book, and even now I have a career as a magazine editor. And I began the book with a question sort of in the back of my mind, which is, I worked at a lot of different magazines over the past 20 years, and they are populated by people who can be weirdos and artists and writers and all sorts of people who you don’t expect to be the most disciplined human beings on earth.

And yet, somehow, month after month for a monthly magazine, or week after week for a weekly magazine, they publish something, they get a magazine out there consistently. For a while, I was the chief editor of Harper’s Magazine, which has been publishing since 1850. And so, what is that – 172 years? They haven’t missed an issue in 172 years. How could that be after all sorts of different people coming through there?

And so, I started to look at what made that possible, and I think they did those two things. They took deadlines seriously from the beginning. Deadline is a word that exists from the publishing industry. And they set up the process of publishing so that it was highly interdependent.

So, in my work as an editor, I would get writers to file an article to me, and that very relationship, the two of us working together, me reminding the writer to stick to the deadline, that was the first bit of interdependence that helped get things done on time but it wasn’t just that. I, in turn, was hearing from the art department, saying, “Where is that article? We need to start to think of the photographs for it or commissioning artwork for it.” And the fact checkers are saying the same thing to me, and to the art department, and the copy editors were saying the same thing.

And so, eventually, you have an organization that’s highly interdependent where everyone is working together to get this project done, even though it ultimately is going to appear as an article with one person’s name on it. And so, that is a machine built to get people to meet their deadlines. And that same writer, if left to their own devices, they’re writing an essay for themselves at their desk, they’re not going to show it to anyone, could end up procrastinating indefinitely, and often do.

I definitely know writers that I work with who say, “I cannot work unless I have the demands set up upon me by magazine deadlines, editors, and everyone else waiting for me to turn my copy in.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m curious, having worked with so many writers, how often do they hit the deadline that you originally established with them?

Christopher Cox
Well, I would say that the writers who will meet a deadline without me saying anything are definitely the exception rather than the rule. But that’s where I come in.

First, my mere presence there, saying, “Please give this to me,” reminding them helps a bit. And then I can also start using some of the strategies that might suggest themselves from the academic literature, which is if I have a writer and I know that I have to have a piece ready to print on Friday, I’m not going to tell them to send it to me on Thursday. I’m going to tell them to send it to me a week ahead of time.

And so, you start pushing their deadline up, which pushes them into action earlier, and that gives everyone else more time to refine the piece, make it better, and it sort of becomes a positive reinforcement loop as you sort of work to make the article as good as possible before publication.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so if we’re zooming in to professionals who want to do better about managing their time and meeting goals and objectives, are there some deadline magic, tactics, principles, guides that we can take on to achieve more better?

Christopher Cox
Yes. So, I think that, set a deadline, make it concrete, that’s step one. If you can set your own deadline, then give yourself maybe just a little bit less time to finish it than you feel comfortable with. That shorter deadline might serve as an inspiration. And then the bigger the project, the more you might start thinking about strategies, like self-imposing interim deadlines.

And this is something that I saw when I went out reporting. I spent some time with Jean-George Vongerichten, who’s a famous restaurateur. He has, oh, gosh, 45, maybe it’s more, restaurants around the world. And I went with Jean-George as he opened two restaurants back-to-back over two days in May of 2019, and watching him do that, I got to see his organization was a machine that was perfectly tailored to opening restaurants. They’ve done it often and they knew how to do it.

Meeting their deadline but having the final product, having the restaurant be as buttoned-up as possible. One of the reasons they want it to be as buttoned-up as possible on day one is they knew the reviewers are going to come that first week often, and they can’t afford to have something sloppy being put in front of a reviewer who might make or break the restaurant.

And so, Jean-George and his team were masters of using interim deadlines. And the way that they get that was something called mock services, which is basically what it sounds like. As soon as they could, and as often as they could, they served meals in these new restaurants, the restaurant before it had open, pretending that it was a regular service night at the restaurant.

So, I went to one of the two restaurants, it was called Fulton that’s in Lower Manhattan, and I first went to it about 30 days before it opened. And that first day that I was there, they’re not serving to real customers but they sat down some of the wait staff, they even brought in members of the construction company’s staff, and I think some interior decorators, and they sat them down and they served them some of the dishes they’re planning for that restaurant, and they worked on fine tuning the service part of it, they worked on fine tuning the taste, they asked them for their opinion on everything.

And they did that day after day after day, every single day until it opened. And that was, one, it had ensured that on actual opening day, that they were ready, and it also allowed them to improve consistently over that same period of all these mock services up until opening day, and, of course, beyond. But on opening day, you wouldn’t have known that it was the first day it was operating. Everything was pretty darn seamless. I was very impressed by what I saw there.

Pete Mockaitis
And that notion of opening day of not necessarily being what we assume when we think about an opening day, you also saw in theatrical releases. Can you talk about that?

Christopher Cox
Yes. So, I spent some time in the public theater, and I watched them develop a show for its world premiere. And what I saw there were a few different things happening at once. They had that same sort of daily check-in, daily revisions that Jean-George had in his restaurant.

But one of the things that really struck me about watching this come together was I had a fairly naïve notion of what a theatrical production looked like when you put it on. I sort of thought, “Okay, you write the play and you rehearse it, and then there’s dress rehearsal, and then it’s done.” But what I actually saw with this performance was dress rehearsal was sort of the midpoint in a longer process of improving the performance, improving the play that they’re putting on.

So, I went to dress rehearsal, and then after that, I went to the first of several preview performances where they had audiences there, and they actually changed the performance considerably based on the feedback from the audience, which makes all the sense in the world. Audiences sort of who you’re to perform for but I found it inspiring, really. And then when I talked to the director, he said, “Oh, yeah, like this is the way it’s always worked in theater.”

The social science name for it is sense-making and updating. So, you take a pause after each day and you figure out what’s going right and what’s going wrong, and then you update according to what you assess along those lines. And the theater producers have figured out how to formalize that process in a way that we don’t often do in our regular life.

And seeing that in the theater made me realize that that is the sort of maneuver that we all need to do in our everyday life, and not just for work projects; for everything. Like, take a pause every day or more often than that, depending on what you’re doing, and take time to assess what you’re doing, the effectiveness, and think about how you might update it.

And so, the interesting academic study I read about sense-making and updating, it was called “More and Less Effective Updating” and it studied 19 different ER teams during a training exercise. And the training exercise was they had a young boy come in as a patient – again, it’s just an exercise, it wasn’t real – who’s complaining of troubled breathing.

And the experiment had been set up so that a crucial piece of equipment, a sort of a mask they use to help the child to breathe, had failed, and they were testing to see who’s going to stop and just try to make sense of the situation, like, “Why are we not helping this child? This device, which is supposed to help the child breathe, why is it not working?” And if you do it well, you will see that this mask is broken, and you’ll update your behavior accordingly.

And the teams that were most effective were the ones who had that instinct, I guess, to stop what they’re doing, even though there’s a child on the table and everything is pushing you to sort of just heedlessly push forward. It doesn’t seem like there’s time to stop and assess the situation. But those teams that did were the ones that saved the child’s life in this exercise because they were able to say, “Okay, let’s figure out what’s wrong here.” And once they figured out the broken mask, it was easy to keep the child healthy and stable.

That was sort of a high-stakes version of the same process but from medicine, to theater, to restaurant opening, it’s a process that we would all do well to remember to do.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s handy, certainly. So, we have a deadline, and so some piece of completion must…I guess there’s all kinds of layers of final, and in some ways it’s never final. You’re constantly potentially iterating and tweaking on end but there are key milestones in terms of, “Someone is going to eat our food,” or, “The doors are going to open to people from the public,” and those are different dates and different milestones and different expectations.

Christopher Cox
Yeah, no, exactly. I think that, we talked earlier about interdependence, there’s a different sort of…it’s not really interdependence but it’s the same sort of mechanism where if you know that there’s going to be a real-paying audience out there watching you perform, or real-paying group of people coming in to eat dinner at your restaurant, that adds stakes to what you’re doing and it concentrates the mind, as they say.

And so, Jean-George, knowing that that first day that that restaurant opened, there are going to be real people there expecting high-quality service and cuisine, that motivated him to get that restaurant as good as possible for opening day. And yet he still continues to improve the restaurant after it had opened. Some deadlines, that’s the way they work. You want it to be as good as possible on opening day or whenever it’s due but you have a chance to improve beyond it.

And part of the wisdom of these organizations, and what I’m sort of trying to help readers discover in the book, is how to take that kind of move, that having what is basically a finished product ready before the actual real final deadline, and that gives you time to improve, revise, make it better. Again, in the magazine world, that’s what I dealt with all the time. Just getting that first draft out of the writer was maybe the most crucial step. And then we have, hopefully, enough time to go through revision after revision and make it better. Obviously, that’s going to be better than the thing that’s completed at the very last minute.

Like the term paper you did in college, that you did an all-nighter for, that was not your best term paper, was it? It was the one that you labored over and gave yourself extra time on because you knew it was super important. And so, recreating that dynamic is sort of what I saw the most effective of these organizations doing. And in the book, I sort of try to point the reader toward ways to build that time into your schedule so you can do the same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, let’s talk about some of those approaches. I’m thinking about when there are self-imposed deadlines, often they…well, they just don’t have the pull that hundreds of people are showing up at a restaurant has. So, any way we can get some more of that motivational oomph when it’s just something that we made up for ourselves?

Christopher Cox
Yeah, that’s a great question, and I would say that, first, you set up these interim deadlines. Let’s say you’re trying to finish, let’s say, it’s a term paper, why not? A lot of us have had that experience. If you set up a deadline for yourself, say, “A month before it’s due, I want to have the first draft done,” or if it’s a longer work, “I want to have the first chapter done,” then do that. Impose that deadline on yourself.

And there’s good news about those kinds of deadlines. Even fake deadlines, even self-imposed deadlines are effective. They’re not as effective as a deadline where there’s a real penalty imposed upon you or a real audience out there, but they still have an effect. Actually, there’s an experiment that I write about in the book. Daniel Ariely conducted this with his students, he wrote the book Predictably Irrational.

Ariely set up an experiment with his class where he basically had three different experimental groups within it. One group got to choose the deadlines for three papers they would write during the semester; one group all had the same deadline, which is the last day of class; and one group, Ariely imposed evenly spaced deadlines for the three papers throughout the semester.

You probably can guess the outcome. The people who had their papers all due on the last day of class performed the worst. The people who had mandatory deadlines evenly spaced by the professor did the best. But there’s something interesting about the third where they got to choose their own deadlines. Some of that group chose the last day of class. They maybe thought that the more time, the better, they would perform better, they had the most flexibility but they actually did just as badly as the people who had it all on the last day of class by design.

But within the people who got to choose, those who self-imposed evenly spaced deadlines on themselves did just as well as the ones who had mandatory evenly spaced deadlines. So, those were fake deadlines, there was no penalty if they didn’t turn it in on the date that they said, but those deadlines had an effect. They were almost like real deadlines for that class.

So, that’s the good news for those of you out there who are thinking, “Well, I can self-impose deadlines but it won’t make any difference because they won’t be real.” Like, if you believe in them and you set them and you make them concrete, they will have an effect.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And to that point, it’s interesting that you can sort of deduce some stakes and some relevance to your deadlines as opposed to them being purely arbitrary. Like, I think these students, again I’m speculating, could say, “Okay, if I don’t complete these in an evenly spaced fashion, I’m going to have a brutally miserable few days of my life,” so there’s that. And so, I guess that’s one means of making them real for yourself is by having an understanding, an articulation of just what would happen if I didn’t hit my self-imposed deadline.

Christopher Cox
Yeah, no, exactly. It sort of goes back to the original lesson, which is set a concrete deadline, take deadline seriously is the most basic part of it. And if you’re thoughtful about it, if you’re just deliberate about these things, it’s going to have a big effect on your performance and how good you are at getting things done before the last minute.

So, these students were wise, those who chose evenly spaced deadlines on their own. They sort of planned through what they thought would be most effective and put it into place, and it worked out for them.

Pete Mockaitis
And you were about to say a second piece. Please, lay it on us.
Christopher Cox
So, first, self-imposed deadlines with nothing else going for them will have an effect. But if you can bring in some enforcement mechanisms, if you can bring in that audience, bring in some way to sort of give those self-imposed deadlines teeth, as I call in the book, then you should. And, well, I did it myself.

So, I wrote this book, and it had a deadline, the publisher wanted it on March 1st, and I knew that I needed to make that deadline. It would be completely embarrassing to write a book about deadlines and miss my own deadline. And so, I was very deliberate about it. I had a little bit over a year to write it and to report it, and so I set up a very fleshed out schedule sort of for that year. And I planned what I was going to write each chapter, what I was going to research each chapter, and I hit most of those interim deadlines pretty well, not perfectly, but those interim deadlines were there and they helped me, and I got things done. Some things came in early. Some things came in late but it all worked out in the wash.

But one of the things that I did to help make those interim deadlines more effective was to start promising a chapter to my editor, or promising a chapter to my agent or to my wife. It didn’t matter, it didn’t have to be someone who had actual authority over me or anything. It could be a best friend, and say, “I’m going to finish this chapter about Jean-George and I’m going to send it to you.”

And just that promise, bringing someone else into the process, increasing the interdependence of what is often a very solitary pursuit, writing a book, helped me, helped me get things done on time. And it meant that, by the time March 1st rolled around, and my editor was ready for my book, I was ready to send it to him.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. All right. So, anyone will do.

Christopher Cox
Yeah, anyone will do and I think that…well, how to put this best?

Pete Mockaitis
Not to diminish your wife in any way. She’s very special.

Christopher Cox
No, exactly. In fact, I would say promising to my wife, that was the most demanding one. I wanted it to impress her. But, yeah, I would say try to create multiple enforcement mechanisms for yourself. So, if you’re a writer, don’t make it only your wife who sees it too, but also find someone else, who’s an outside party, so you have…it’s sort of like, in a magazine world, like, me thinking, “Oh, I have to meet the demands of the art department and the fact-checking department and the copy editor.” It’s the sort of multiple connections of interdependence that is the most effective at keeping you on target.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’ll tell you, with the podcasts, having tens and thousands of folks who just sort of expect there’s going to be an episode on Monday and Thursday does wonders for me.

Christopher Cox
Oh, for sure. Having that audience out there, whether you’re doing a podcast or putting a magazine out or putting on a theatrical production, it really concentrates you and keeps you on target.

Pete Mockaitis
And, Christopher, I want to get your take, is there a dark side to deadlines? Is it all benefit or are there some watchouts we should be concerned about?

Christopher Cox
Well, I’ve certainly come to embrace and respect and rely upon deadlines, and I do think that the notion that I find myself pushing back against over and over again, especially when people know that I’ve written this book about deadlines, is that deadlines and creativity are somehow at odds, that we associate it with the task master putting us to work and there’s no room for creativity, and it has to be done by a certain date.

Then what happens if I have a brilliant insight that would only arrive if I gave myself endless time to work on it? But I just don’t think that’s the case. Like, I’ve seen it with the writers, brilliant writers, poets, novelists, all of them, they thrive under a deadline. And I saw the same thing in organizations as different from that as like the Air Force.

Like, I went and embedded in this Air Force unit and they were so deadline-driven and yet they were so focused, but they also seem the most at ease of anyone that I saw because they knew they were dialed in, they knew that they were going to meet their deadlines, and so they didn’t feel any stress. And I compared it to a state of flow, this state of complete concentration that has elements of euphoria to it.

So, I guess I would say that there is a dark side to deadlines but only if you’re not using them effectively. The original deadline effect is a concept in the economic world the tendency to delay things until the last minute. So, if you are negotiating and you have a deadline to finish up your negotiation, the deadline effect is that draw that makes you not settle until the last minute. That’s why settlements are reached on the courthouse steps, it’s that deadline.

But that’s kind of miserable. Procrastinating until the last minute and then rushing something out. And so, that’s the dark side but if you embrace deadlines, and know how to effectively deploy them, you can get rid of all that last minute nonsense and eliminate the painful period of procrastination and just get right into that mode of creative productive work as early as possible, and that is deeply satisfying.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Christopher, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Christopher Cox
Well, it’s out on paperback. The book is out on paperback now, and I would love for people to pick it up. But, no, I think you’ve covered quite a lot in a short amount of time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. All right. Well, could you share now a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Christopher Cox
There is a quote attributed to Einstein, which is “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.” And that, to me, spoke to me in my deadline work. And when I looked into that quote, he did say it but he said something much more long winded about it and it got boiled down into that more pithy version. And that sort of inspired me in a way because it’s sort of he had a brilliant idea, and even he needed an editor to improve it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite study or experiment or piece of research?

Christopher Cox
Well, I read a lot of different studies for this book but probably the most fun…well, one would be that “Procrastination of Enjoyable Experiences” because it just was so strange to think that people would put off getting themselves a free slice of cake. But there is another one called “Procrastination by Pigeons” and it was part of a whole universe of animal studies that show that animals, too, procrastinate.

There was a rat study where rats tended to prefer a larger shock if they could put it off into the future than a smaller one right now. So, it’s a wild and wonderful world out there when you start to think about deadlines and procrastination, and the way that not just humans have a relationship with time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, in a way, that’s a really good synopsis of what procrastination does, you’ll get a larger shock if later.

Christopher Cox
Yeah, and we impose that pain upon ourselves over and over again. We don’t learn. And just like rats, we don’t learn.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Christopher Cox
Well, one book that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is an old favorite, but that’s Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. It’s a big weighty door stop but he is the master of research and going as deep as you can go on a subject. And I talk about him a little bit in my book as a negative example because he’s been working on his big LBJ project for, I guess, 50 years now, but I want to tell Robert Caro here now, I think what you’re doing is wonderful and I love your book, so forgive me for making fun of you a little bit in my own book.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Christopher Cox
Well, I think I probably will echo a lot of people who talk about sort of shutting off devices and finding time for yourself to be isolated. But here’s a much more mundane one. A while ago, I switched to waking up in the morning to make my coffee, and instead I pre-programmed my coffee every morning so it’s waiting for me when I wake up. And that has done wonders for my morning productivity.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share, that folks tend to really quote back to you frequently?

Christopher Cox
Well, there is a part in the book that we didn’t talk about, but I ended up doing one part of the book undercover, and I got a job at Best Buy, and the deadline in question there was Black Friday. So, I ended up working in Best Buy on Black Friday, and I watched how they completely reformed the way that store works just for that one day to handle the huge increase in crowds.

And I don’t know if Best Buy is often thought of as a model organization, but what I saw there absolutely impressed me. So, whenever I meet someone who’s read the book, they often asked me if I really did work at Best Buy, and I can prove it by talking at length about different fight-screen televisions.

Pete Mockaitis
So, did you confess? When you say undercover, do they know what you’re up to, or you’re just a pure normal employee? “Christopher, I see you have quite the resume in the writing world. What makes you interested in electronics?”

Christopher Cox
Yeah. I had to disguise some of my resume and play up other parts of it. I made a promise to myself that I would not lie to anyone, but I did not tell them, for example, that I was, at that moment, employed by a magazine. So, yeah, I tried to go in through the front door, I went to their PR department and said I want to write about Best Buy, I want to write about Black Friday. They spoke to me for a while and then ended up ghosting me.

And after about a year of trying that, I said, “All right. Well, I’m going to find a different way to tell the story.” And applied for a job, and got one, and worked for a few months just to prepare for that Black Friday. And then, finally, when it was all over, I told everyone I worked with what I was up to, and I changed their names for the books because they weren’t expecting to be written about. It’s a very positive chapter, so I hope that they’re happy with it even though I had to get in through slightly less than direct means.

Pete Mockaitis
I was just thinking about you’ve got your own deadline for the book about deadlines, and you’re like, “Oh, man, I got to shift.”

Christopher Cox
Yeah, that was a problem. It’s time-consuming to hold down a day job at Best Buy while also writing a book but, somehow, I managed to squeeze it all in.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Christopher Cox
The easiest thing to do would be to go to Deadline-Effect.com, and it’s got a bit of everything about the book and about me there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Christopher Cox
Well, I’ll repeat the first lesson, which is take deadlines seriously. I promise, you probably think you already do, but just be disciplined about it, be deliberate about it in everything you do, and, ultimately, it’s liberating. As your productivity goes up, you become happier, you spend less time feeling that painful procrastination, and you work life will get just that much better.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Christopher, it’s been a treat. I wish you much luck with all your deadlines.

Christopher Cox
Thank you, Pete. It’s been great to be with you.