Procrastination, Productivity and Curiosity

How to Overcome Procrastination with a Question

Maybe it is because I consider myself naturally inquisitive. Maybe it is because our brains respond to questions instinctively. Maybe it is because it was written down once in a David Allen book somewhere. For whatever reason I have found that I can achieve a very focused state by simpling reframing a task in the form of a question. This sounds trivial, but the realization alone has allowed me to get things off my task list much sooner. Consider the following example.

I have an item on my task list.

Research keeping depreciation off personal property in a personal holding company.

This item has been there for too long and I need to get it resolved because it is important to a client of mine. It could also mean more business for our firm. But the task of “research” is daunting. When it comes to getting things off your to do list Allen recommends breaking items down into their next physical task. That works great for cleaning out the garage or packing for the family the vacation. But knowledge work is more nuanced. Instead of the next physical action I would be better off to consider the next mental action I need to take.

This is where asking questions allows knowledge workers to kick productivity into high gear. GTD afficianodos know that the process of breaking next actions into more granular activities can get obscene. There is a law of diminishing returns. Getting so detailed as “squeeze the toothepaste for .6 seconds” does not add meaningfully to your quality of life. But in the area of knowledge work not only do we fail to consider the mental action over the physical, we also take on projects large enough to choke an entire hemisphere of the brain. By asking questions and getting more granular we can increase productivity and overcome pracrastination at the same time.

I have rewritten my task as a project and have broken it down into a few more mental actions.

Client xxxxx research project

Is there such a thing as non-business corporate property?

Is depreciation required for non-business corporate property, citation needed?

What documentation is required to substantiate personal property? Business property?

Is the allowed vs. allowable language going to kill us no matter what we do?

Ultimately, is there a way to preserve the basis at original cost for a number of years?

When I reframe the research task in this way I find that my brain is just itching to answer the first question. In the process of thinking about what questions need to be answered you actually start in on the task and that little bit of headway seeems to push through the procrastination bottlneck.

What does this have to do with running your business better? Whether we are working with a business that does something very tangible (manufacturing) or very intangible (law office) the process of working on the business tends toward the intangible side of the spectrum. When we work with business owners stuck in the tangible all day, every day, this switch to the intangible creates a very different to do list. For example, in the course of planning we might decide to “map the service delivery workflow and eliminate redundancies.” More than once I have left a management team with this sort of task on its to do list only to come back a week or a month later and find it still sitting there. But notice the difference an extra five minutes of planning can make. Let’s reframe the task as a question and break it into smaller parts.

What can we do to elminate redundancy in our service delivery?

Who are all the people directly involved in service delivery?

Indirectly involved?

What does each person do?

Are their activities running parallel or sequential?

How long does each activity take?

Why is each activity there?

Are there any we can get rid of?

Do they have to happen in the same order or is there a better way?

Who isn’t involved in service delivery that should be?

These are not tough questions to ask. Answering them may be more difficult, but unless you ask them the task of “mapping workflow” and “emiminating redundancies” can get overwhelming in a hurry.

The reason this type of on-the-fly planning isn’t practiced is the same thing that makes it so effective. It only takes minutes, literally. It doesn’t require a new piece of software, a weekend retreat or the latest tactics from a time management best seller. If you want to take knowledge work to the next level do this:

  1. Buy a stack of 3x5 index cards.

  2. Place your stack directly underneath your computer monitor.

  3. Any time you are about to begin something that will take longer than 30 minutes pull out an index card and write the task across the top.

  4. Spend 3–5 minutes listing all the micro steps required to complete your task.

  5. Plunge ahead and get it done.

All we are talking about is 3–5 minutes. Brian Tracy famously said for every one minute spent planning we save twelve in execution. That may not hold true for a 30 minute project. Then again, how many times have you looked up after 90 minutes and thought “holy crap, why did that take so long?” Give it a try, you might be surprised.


The Power of "Yes"

Moving from adversary to advocate

You can tell how much authority a person has by what they can say "yes" to. The server at your favorite restaurant can bring you an extra serving of broccoli on the house, but the manager can comp your entire meal. The airline ticket counter can let you check an extra bag free of charge, but the captain can hold the plane at the gate. This post is about the power of yes and the fallacy of the power to say "no."

The Power to Say "No"

Every day you run into someone just itching to say "no" to you, from fast food drive through attendants, to corporate gate keepers, to the bank teller having a bad day. "No" is a power trip taken by the frustrated, peeved, and short tempered. It is a favorite word of people at the short end of their own proverbial stick. But the power of "no" is a fallacy.

Everyone can say "no." You need no special powers, no training, no desire to do anything other than utter a single syllable. If the unwashed masses can all say it, and they can do it regularly with little consequence, the two letter word may not indicate so much power as we think. The truth is, "no" is selfish word. One of the great time management tactics available to the overbooked, over committed and over worked is the magic of "no." If you have no time for yourself you probably need to say "no" more often.

But this doesn't describe most people. Most people have no problem putting themselves at the head of the line. If you doubt this just visit a toy store the weekend before Christmas. When someone finds themselves in the position to say "no" they also are in a great position to get what they want. And what do most people want? Sameness. Change is scary. Tasks I've never done before, suck. Taking risks is for younger people. Me? I want more of the same. And "no" is just the ticket.

"No" is the great perpetuator of the status quo. It is the hobgoblin of innovation. It is the sour puss at the birthday party. "No" is the easy way to say "not today, not ever." And it happens every day. It happens so often that people who say "yes" stand out as heroes, while the masses that say "no" exact a high price for their ability to be keep the upper hand.

The Cost of No

In most business interactions there is an audience of exactly two people, yourself and the person listening. And this leads us to the reason that hostage negotiators are taught never to say "no" to the bad guys. "No" creates an environment of me vs. you. It is the ultimate polarizer. It is the precursor to a zero sum game. And if one person must win and one person must lose that innocuous little word sets the stage for epic conflict, even in the smallest of affairs.

"No" puts your customers on the other side of the table. They have no choice but to treat you as the adversary. Once the lines have been drawn and you have placed yourself on the other side of the table it is game on. But it doesn't stop there. "No" permeates a culture rapidly. Soon employees are refusing help to one another, bosses are denying simple requests and no one feels any obligation to do anything but look out for themselves.

"No" allows your employees to vent their personal frustrations at the office. When customers become passive aggressive punching bags problems start surfacing everywhere. Think that new prospect is going to get an answer on the proposal at 5:01 on a Friday? Nope. Hoping that your longest and best customer gets a little extra attention on a service call? Think again. "No" will infect every aspect of a business, from record keeping to employee evaluations. No one is safe once you have let "no" enjoy free reign for a few weeks.

The Power to Say "Yes"

If you buy into all this talk about "no" you might also be thinking about a rousing staff meeting speech encouraging everyone to say "yes" more often. But it's not that easy. A culture of "yes" has to be deliberately nurtured if it is going to make any difference in operations. The power to say "yes" has to be built on a solid foundation.

  • Team members must be granted the authority to say "yes," and it must be a formal acknowledgement from leadership.
  • For it to mean something that authority cannot be given indiscriminately. It must be earned.
  • The effect of "yes" must be demonstrated by leadership.

I will say a little about each of these points.

Formal granting of authority

There is a lot to be said for rites of passage. These are distinct points in time that separate one phase of life from another. The first time my dad let me mow the yard by myself was a rite of passage. My first sleep-away summer camp was a rite of passage. When my parents gave me the car keys for the first time it was a rite of passage. To be truly memorable and meaningful these events need to be formally acknowledged. It is one thing to grab the keys as your parents tell you to be careful and get home by 11. It is something else entirely for them to ceremoniously dangle the car key over your outstretched palm between thumb and forefinger while they look into your eyes and say "It all changes from here; we can't watch you anymore; we have to trust that you are going to look after yourself and those in your care." The power to say "yes" needs to be handed over like something sacred.

Too often we assume that team members know they should say "yes" to satisfy customers. But who would you rather have at the cash register? The person you assume knows what to do or the person who treats their responsibility like it has been handed down on stone tablets? Don't underestimate the power of granting your team explicit authority. Treat the power to say "yes" like something special and meant only for the trustworthy. If you do you will find that it is used with care and diligence. Treat it like yesterday's newspaper and you will see your team members do the same.

It must be earned

There is a parable in Matthew that says

"Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him."

To some this seems unfair, but to your customers it seems just. Your customers do not want the newest employee to have the unbridled authority to solve their problem. They want the manager or the senior person on the floor to be able to come to their rescue. Be careful about granting the authority to say "yes" to someone who has not earned it.

While "yes" has the power to delight it also has the ability to make things much worse. If a customer returns a broken product that has been recalled, and demands a replacement the employee without the wisdom to say "no" can create huge potential liability by granting the customer's demand. In service situations employees who indiscriminately reinforce bad customer habits circumvent processes. Left unchecked they will eventually undermine the company's work with customers who adhere to those same processes.

It must be demonstrated by leadership

Your team members need to experience what it feels like on the other side of the table when someone hears "yes." They need to hear you say it and experience the emotions that go along. This does not mean that you become a push over. It means that you listen a lot more. It means that you encourage conversations. It means that you look for opportunities to say "yes." Leaders are so accustomed to saying "no" that the habit of looking for chances to say "yes" is hard.

And when you say "yes" you have to make sure that you follow through and deliver. The only thing worse than a manager who says "no" all the time is one that says "yes" all the time. Employees are not stupid. They understand that not every request can be granted. Resources are limited; other people have to be considered; these are the rules of life. When you try to temporarily suspend reality by granting every request your employees will know you are full of it. What follows is an arbitrary granting of some requests and an arbitrary languishing of others.

You need to demonstrate a series of wins with your team where "yes" has been heard and "yes" has been seen. If you skip this step you will find that you have built a great group of people pleasers that cannot execute.

The Effect of "Yes"

Imagine a business where your team members start telling customers "yes...we can find a way to fix your problem," "yes...we can get that done today," "yes...I'd be happy to look into that." The most noticeable effect of the power of "yes" is that it creates a culture of delight. Saying "yes" is a selfless act, and those who use it to help others enjoy the feeling the accompanies the giving of a gift.

But a culture of "yes" also allows people to find fulfillment through work. To say "yes" a lot you have to love what you are saying "yes" to. You don't have to love anything about your work to say "no." Not surprisingly many of the people so proficient at saying "no" are miserable. When it becomes the cultural norm to say "yes" miserable people do not last very long. They either self weed or are culled from the herd by their peers. Those who are left see themselves playing a much larger role than delivering widgets or answering customer inquiries. They believe the world is a better place because of their role in it.

But your customers are not the only beneficiaries. The same way a culture of "no" bleeds over into employee interactions a culture where team mates respond with "yes" begins to enrich communications and employee effectiveness. Knowing that your co-worker will stop and help you drives many employees to look for the answer themselves a little longer lest they take advantage of someone they respect. It also encourages people to be a little more vulnerable around each other in asking for help. This process builds a more cohesive team with real relationships, not just 9-5 proximity to one another.

Finally, the culture of "yes" makes the win-win outcome the standard measure of the organization. People are no longer satisfied with the zero sum game whether it's played with fellow employees, customers, vendors or the boss.

Back to the Real World

I know it is not all rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes you need to say "no." There are plenty of good reasons to decline requests, demands and passive aggressive suggestions. But those reasons are elaborated over and over again in time management pieces and personal empowerment articles. I don't think I need to get into that. I want to take the other road, the one too often ignored. It is not the same as the idea that "the customer is always right." The decision to say "yes" is about the proper exercise of power. "No" may afford you the opportunity to put someone in the place you think they belong, but "yes" gives you the ability to put them in the place they aspire to. When it comes to role models I will take Mother Teresa over the disgruntled toll booth operator every day of the week.


Summary and Discussion of "Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It"

This was the third Axiom Book Club event. Every other month we select a book we beleive will be of interest to clients and friends of the firm. This month we chose Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It by Ressler and Thompson.


Grit, The Best Predictor of Success

I read this article from the New York Times called What if the Secret to Success is Failure. It was published last fall and has been blogged, podcasted and commented on inumerable times since. Among the many take-aways is the finding that grit, the ability to stick to something and overcome obstacles in the face of adversity, is better than GPA or college pedigree at predicting who will make a difference. It got me to thinking that this concept of grit, determination, perseverance, or whatever it is called is most often the trait exemplified by the protaganist on the inspirational big screen. I've linked up a few examples below.

I was talking with some other firm owners this week. While discussing what our ideal customer looks like this idea of optimism and determination came up. It is not surprising that we want to see this in our customers. It is a value we all aspire to. We want to see it not only in ourselves but in our friends, in our family members and in those people that we encounter every day. The greatest thing about the research reported in the Times article is that it excludes no one. In fact, those who have the odds against them are in the position of greatest opportunity. It is they who can demonstrate grit. The people you encounter who seem to be at the bottom, weighed down by a mountain of circumstances that argue against their eventual success, are the ones poised to surprise you. And if you are the one under the mountain? Take heart. No one finishes your story but you. Start writing.



New Podcast on Business Strategy and Planning

We started a new podcast on business strategy and planning. The first episode is on the importance of pace when doing strategic planning. Believe it or not how slowly or quickly you move through the process makes a big difference in how effective planning might be for your company.

Check it out here.