What Not To Do

Perfectionising, Distractifying, Trivianeering and 4 more things that should be on your Not-to-do list

I’m writing this post as the run-up to Christmas is well and truly underway. For a change I seem to be on top of everything I’m supposed to be doing and am actually feeling quite festive relatively early (“Ho, Ho Ho.”). But this is a potentially very stressful time of year. As one study, which I first saw in The Guardian newspaper puts it, Christmas can actually give you a heart attack!

It’s no surprise that the pressure from financial and appraisal year-ends can add to our stress at work. Nor that everybody suddenly realises they’ve set the end of this month as a deadline for an awful lot of crucial objectives and that there’s still quite a bit to do! Combine that with the need to attend all those important social/networking/team-building events and (in the northern hemisphere at least) cold dark nights and grey days, and no wonder we can get a bit overwhelmed.

Perhaps a good time then to consider your Not-to-do list. And if you’re reading this some other time of year and you don’t have a Not-to-do list – why on earth not!? Here’s what should be on it:

Perfectionising
Not everybody remembers that Pareto’s Law works in two ways. The first is what we all know – 80% of our results are delivered by the first 20% of our efforts. But crucially for your Not-to-do list, the last 20% of the results you can achieve will take 80% of your effort – and it’s a parabolic curve, so that the further you aim, the tougher it gets! You’ve got to be really, really sure that anything you’re working on needs to be more than 80% perfect before you push past that point.

Distractifying
How easy is it these days to distractify ourselves?
(Don’t go looking for that word in your dictionary, I just made it up to see if I could catch you out). Checking emails, tweeting, facebooking, LinkedIn-ing, all from the comfort of your phone, even before we’ve counted actual, human, In Real Life interruptions and distractifications. Don’t do it, Stay-focussed. Rest properly when you need to rest and only check emails a couple of times a day if you can.

Trivianeering
When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory allegedly replied, “Because it’s there.” This is maybe a good reason for mountaineering, but I’m not convinced that “because it was there” is anywhere near being a good enough reason for doing things at work. Climbing Everest in those days wasn’t easy or trivial, so make sure that you’re not adding things to your to-do list just because they’re ‘there’ or are easy to do. Some mountains are important, others are just trivia.

Strugglesting
‘Strugglesting’ – intransitive verb: ‘Trying to do something but not actually getting it done; struggling without making progress.’ I don’t know about you, but this one does occasional catch me, like an unseasonal fly stuck to flypaper, I’ll sometimes keep on strugglesting for way too long. Put it on your Not-to-do list. Either break the task down so it’s small enough to get something done, or go get whatever resource you need to be able to do it. Like Yoda said, “NO! Try Not! Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Worryings
Another great thief of time and effort. Natural as it is, Worry. Never. Helps. Leo Buscaglia wrote: “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” Take action to mitigate what’s worrying you, or learn to peacefully co-exist with your concerns. Put Worryings on the Not-to-do list.

Rambling
Although it’s one of my favourite Led Zeppelin songs, rambling on should be right up there on our Not-to-do lists. Don’t have unfocused meetings or calls. Don’t meet without an agenda and don’t forget to agree some specific actions as a result.

Dramacating
Don’t get dragged into other people’s dramas. Focus on what you need to do, on what only you can do, on what is best done just by you. There’s a great Polish idiom which is said with a shrug when there’s a risk of getting dragged into the mess of an unnecessary drama: “Not my circus; not my monkeys.”


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. What’s on your Not-to-do list?
And have a great festive season whatever time of year it is.


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Don’t tell me what I can’t do!

I’m too busy doing it.

My favourite response whenever someone starts imposing their own limits on me.

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As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. How unstoppable are you?


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The Road You’re On

Which matters most: the road you’ve chosen for yourself and your business; or your commitment to that choice?

A resource that gets used a lot in my world is the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken, from his 1920 book: Mountain Interval.

It’s a very inspirational poem and what people usually like most about it are the last two lines, where Frost is talking about the two roads that he could have walked into the woods:

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

It’s easy to see how this is so inspiring.

Choosing the unknown path, and dealing with all of the hardships and tests along the way, is a great reflection of everybody’s life and work experience. None of us really know what lies ahead and all of us have had trials and tribulations as well as joys and accomplishments along the way.

And yet, re-reading the poem again this morning, I wondered if perhaps I’ve been misunderstanding Frost’s emphasis.

I was struck by the end of the second verse and the beginning of the third, where he’s making the choice about which road to take. One track is grassier than the other, and yet he bothers to tell us:

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

It made me realise that both of these roads are unknown to Frost’s morning traveller.
Yes, he took the one that was a bit grassier, but actually they were really about the same.

And (with apologies for the huge sideways leap here but this is how my head works), I was reminded of doing a series of exercises around ‘White Space Analysis’ on my MBA. This is where you investigate a couple of criteria that are important to buyers in a particular market – Price and Quality, for example – and then plot all of the current offerings in that market onto a grid, to see where there might be some white space for a new offering.


What I remember most about doing that exercise over the weekend at college and then just a week or so later taking part in a marketing strategy programme back in the large organisation where I worked, was this:

With one or two exceptions perhaps, there really wasn’t a whole lot of viable white space anywhere in any market. At first glance, almost everywhere you looked, some business was already doing something that more or less fit the criteria. To really make the most of the white space exercise, you had to look beyond that first glance, to include:

  • nuance – where is there some nearly-white space?
  • competences and culture – what nearly-white space can we thrive in by virtue, say, of our innovation and/or our resilience?

That is what Frost was really saying I think. That all roads are actually already travelled a bit; just not by us. That our choice of what road to take will be determined by a nuance – the grass is slightly less worn on one track, maybe – but that it’s our choice nevertheless. That for every road we do take, one remains not taken and can never be known and should not be regretted. That what really makes a difference is not which road you choose but your commitment to being totally on it.

The Road Not Taken

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. How do you feel about your choice of the road you’re on – and what was involved in that?


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Puppy Mind

What to do if you or your team member are the kind of person who loves to get distracted or unfocused at work

One of the concepts I like to work on with clients, is that some people have a Puppy Mind. That is, they’re easily distracted and love to go chasing after interesting things at the drop of a hat.

People who have a Puppy Mind can often be very critical of themselves. I hear clients say things like: “I wish I could be more focused!” Or, “I must a nightmare to work with; always chasing after the next thing!”

And people who have Puppy-Minded team members can get quite worried about or frustrated with them. Leaders are often concerned that Puppy-Minded people will get overloaded, or fail to finish a long project or will miss something boring but important in favour of something interesting but less critical.

I always say, yes those criticisms or concerns do have some truth in them. But – who doesn’t love a puppy!?

It would be a terribly boring world if everybody at work was the same as everybody else. In fact, research shows that teams with a diversity in thinking styles outperform, in the long run, teams where everybody thinks the same.

There’s also research to suggest that around 30% of people at work have a natural inclination to bob around from one thing to another, rather than go through things, step-by-step, from start to finish. Not all of those people will be Puppy-Minded, since many of them will have trained themselves to be slightly more focused and slightly more linear in their approach. But nevertheless, a significant proportion of people at work have got some puppy in them. Which is good! We need their enthusiasm and get-up-and-go and their ability to juggle a million things and their ability to sniff out something interesting.


One aspect of Buddhist Mindfulness uses the idea of Puppy Mind for meditation practice. Whenever your attention wanders, think of it like a puppy being trained to sit. And then gently but firmly lead it back to the sitting position.


If you find you’re being critical of yourself, as a leader, for having Puppy Mind, remember that your enthusiasm and interest and sheer Puppy-Appeal is probably part of what made you successful in the first place. If you need to, just notice when you’re distracted, and gently bring your attention back to where it needs to be.

Similarly, if you find yourself worried about or frustrated with a Puppy-Minded team member there are three things you should be considering:

  1. How lucky you are to have that Puppy-Loveliness around!
  2. Is now to the time to just gently and firmly point them back to the right place and the right direction; to do some Puppy Training?
  3. What needs to change in their workflow or working environment so that it’s easier for them to play to their strengths?

Above all, whether it’s you yourself or someone else who is a little Puppy-Minded, remember that shouting at and getting frustrated with puppies DOESN’T WORK – but that gentle encouragement and firm-but-kind hearted training does.

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. What do you notice about your own or other people’s Puppy Mind at work?


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Achieving Change and Progress

Chop the wood and carry the water: use small, daily actions to achieve big things

There’s a great Zen koan which goes:

Before enlightenment, chop the wood and carry the water;

After enlightenment, chop the wood and carry the water.

Like all those koans, this can be interpreted in a few different ways but I like it because of the importance of just doing the small, daily stuff. Even when working towards something as big as Enlightenment, the fire still needs to be kept going, the water still needs drawing. Even afterwards, we still need to cook, eat and drink.

I don’t think we always find it easy to adopt this mind-set. Perhaps it’s because popular culture emphasises the dramatic, heroic interventions, or the long-shot that finally pays off big-time.

Some changes, even good ones, do happen suddenly and with huge impact. But my belief is that even those are usually just the visible tipping points that result from an accumulation of force over time.

In reality, most change, progress and innovation is the result of small, daily actions that build and build. Daily actions that become habits, habits that become traits, traits that lead to paradigm shifts.

I’ve written elsewhere on this website about the importance of linking long-term goals to short-term activity. For example, see here: Planning, productivity and the cumulative S curve and here: Productivity, prioritisation and the rule of threes

The kind of daily, chopping the wood and carrying the water-type actions I’m looking at here are the most granular level of achieving your long-term objectives. We should ask ourselves:

“What’s the small thing I could do in the next five minutes that will at least keep the fires burning?
What small task can I choose every day to help water this year’s crop?”


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. What’s your current equivalent of needing to chop the wood and carry the water?


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Too much to do?

Slow is Smooth; Smooth is Fast. The 3S’s of making hard work easy.

This is a saying that I like to remember whenever I find myself frantically trying to catch-up on too much at once. Slow is smooth; smooth is fast.

I couldn’t find any definitive reference for where it originally comes from, although it often gets attributed to US Special Forces and even Napoleon is credited with saying something alone the lines of “Dress me slowly; I’m in a hurry.”

I first heard it listening to a talk from Formula racing drivers – it’s apparently a good mindset for winning races and not spilling off the track in a corner!


The principle is easy to understand.

Rushing into things gives you less chance to assess the ultra-important 3S’s:

  • Sequence (what’s the best order in which to do things);
  • Strategy (what’s the best way to do them); and
  • Simultaneity (what’s the best number of things to be doing at once).

Over the years I’ve tried to figure out if Slow is Smooth; Smooth is Fast is best applied to either standard or non-standard tasks, but I think it works equally well both with things you’re familiar with doing (but have a lot of) and tasks that are unfamiliar.

Getting into the mindset of doing this well is similar to a flow-state (the subject of a future article on this website), in that it’s not something you push or try hard at. Instead, it’s about relaxing into things. As Yoda might have said: “Don’t try too hard; just do.”

Similarly, instead of trying to catch the racing car in front of you, it’s about making sure that you take the best line through the next corner, and the next corner and the one after that. That is fast.

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Become like water.”

Bruce Lee

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. What’s your approach when you’ve got way too much to do and not enough time to do it?


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Guarantees are on Electrical Products

Is it time to take a big bet on yourself?

I’ve got a couple of projects on the go as I write this that are, in essence, big bets on myself and my abilities. They’re calculated bets, in that the odds are probably in my favour. But if I was playing totally safe and only betting on certainties, I wouldn’t be doing them.

When I’ve done this in the past, some have worked and some have failed. You win some and you lose some and, if you’re calculating your odds properly, hopefully you win more than you lose. But there’s no guarantee; guarantees are on electrical products, not your projects.


What are you dreaming of or working on now that needs you to take a big bet on yourself?

And how do the odds look on that one?

And what happens if you never bet on yourself?

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.

Ambrose Redmoon

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

Wayne Gretzky

I reckon there’s a reason they call a sure thing a “dead cert” – because if you only bet on the sure thing, you might as well be dead. And if you don’t bet on yourself when you need to, who else will ever back you?


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. What big bet on yourself do you need to take? And how do you get yourself in the right frame of mind to take that bet?


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Intuition and Persuasion

Having the guts to persuade other people to trust your intuition

I’ve heard it said that intuition is the result of our brains unconsciously processing thousands of bits of data. There’s good research to support this view and it makes sense when you think about how much of our daily actions we do on autopilot. For example, driving your regular route to work, without having to consciously think too much about directions and turns and traffic.

Others have written that intuition comes from combining years of experience with having a finger on the pulse of what’s actually happening now.

I read recently that the kilometres of neurones and nerve connections in our intestines are about the same size as the brain of a cat – an animal we admire for its cunning and fast-reactions. Maybe that’s reason enough to “trust your gut”!

There can’t be many good leaders around nowadays who don’t make an effort to tap into their own intuition, or at least to listen to what their gut is telling them.

But what can be much harder, is getting other people to trust your intuition.

This is something which comes up in my coaching with leaders and their teams fairly often. How do you get other people to trust your intuition? Especially as we’re increasingly in the kind of working world which stresses the use of metrics and which says things like: “What gets measured, gets managed”. In that situation, how do you justify a vague feeling that something important has been missed? How do you persuade people that your sense that everything is not quite right should be listened to?

For now, there’s one aspect of this that is really worth focusing on, which is about not waiting for permission to speak your intuition, and then doing so in a way that makes it acceptable.

The language you use is very important. This is especially useful in board meetings and other group situations (particularly if you’ve just spent an hour pouring over detailed financials and performance reports). You have to use the language of intuition, and know that it’s OK to do so. You can say things like the following, and know that they are perfectly acceptable, for the reasons discussed above:

  • “My gut is telling me X.”
  • “I don’t know quite where it’s coming from, but my intuition is that …”
  • “I’ve got a hard-to-define sense that we also need to consider Y.”

Leaders need to speak their intuition in a way that has impact, otherwise they’re ignoring the full range of their brain’s processing power and failing to use their experience.

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. When and how do you speak your own intuition?


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Go for it

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Thinking at work isn’t dead – is it?

The smartest bloke I ever knew used to start his working day by putting his feet up on the desk. Is that still important?

I’d gone to work in his department from a demanding operational job and it was a shock to see all this apparent leisure happening. So I asked him what he was doing and got the predictable answer:

“Thinking!”

Just recently I’ve been coaching in a couple of organisations where the amount and quality of thinking left a lot to be desired!

Problems which could have been worked through seemed mystifying.
Rewarding opportunities, which a little bit of smart analysis would have highlighted, were lost in a frenetic chasing of the more obvious.

My smart boss was quite fierce about it, “I recruited you to do the smart thinking too. So you’d better find your own way to make it happen.”


But it’s not just the business benefits that make good thinking so important. The future of work is going to be very different, just in the next few decades compared with today, driven by an exponential growth in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace. It might not be too strong to say that:

In the future, if you’re not thinking at work, you won’t be at work!

AI experts say that the human talents they believe machines and automation may not be able to replicate are primarily about:

  • creativity
  • collaborative activity
  • abstract and systems thinking
  • complex communication
  • the ability to thrive in diverse environments.

All of those require at least a modicum of good quality thought.


If you’re a business owner or a leader in a larger organisation:

  • How much good thinking are you doing yourself (whether you have your feet up on the desk or not)?
  • How do you make sure that your teams are doing enough good thinking?

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. What kind of thinking is important in your work – and how do you make it happen?


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