Minimum Viable Progress

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I’ve been struggling to get started on two big projects: I want to write a book on the Align Method--a method I developed to help creatives/knowledge workers maximize their output. And I want to organize and clean every room in my house. 

Every day I tell myself, today is the day! I’m going to start! It’s going to feel so great to have that manuscript in hand. I will feel so much calmer once I’ve gone through the house. And then I invariably get distracted and make zero progress. 

Sound familiar?

And then it occurred to me: I am letting myself be distracted by other, less essential work because I feel overwhelmed. I should be following the advice I give my clients: apply the idea of minimum viable progress. 

Coined by Greg McKeown, the idea plays on the concept of a minimum viable product. A minimum viable product is what entrepreneurs use to describe the simplest iteration of their product that can be tested by potential customers. Analogously, thinking in terms of minimum viable progress is a way to break down big goals into bite-size do-able tasks.

I have decided to launch my own 30-day minimum viable progress challenge starting tomorrow. Here are the rules I have developed for myself, based on what I know as a coach:

  • I will write for only 30 minutes a day on my book and then spend 30 minutes working on my house.
  • I will do these two 30-minute sessions first thing in the morning, back-to-back.
  • I will take a 10-minute break between the two sessions.
  • Though it’s tempting to add on more goals, I am going to stick to these two projects.
  • I am also going to be disciplined about cutting myself off after 30 minutes, even if I want to keep going.
  • At the end of my sessions, I will take a few seconds to jot down in my notebook my plan for the next day.
  • I am going to keep a visual record of my progress using the Seinfeld Method.
  • Finally, I ’m going to reward myself by scheduling a fun activity after my work sessions.

Do you have a big project you’ve been putting off? Want to join me on a 30-day MVP challenge? If so, send me a message with your goal, and we’ll keep each other accountable!

 

 

 

Protect the Asset

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I knew a guy in graduate school. Let’s call him Tom. Tom ruffled his hair every time he walked down the hallway in our department. When Tom saw a professor, he made a conscious effort to move quickly, look down and exasperatedly mumble something under his breath. He mastered the art of appearing busy and overwhelmed, sometimes to the point of being rude. Why? Because Tom was convinced that our professors would assume he was working hard. And he was right. Tom had a reputation among the faculty as a hard worker, a serious scholar. [I'm pretty sure Tom got this idea from this Seinfeld episode].

Tom was ridiculous. But he was also on to something. He was tapping into, and subsequently gaming, a ubiquitous belief that imbues busyness with virtue. He was harnessing the power of the wide-held conviction that serious and ambitious people put themselves last. That the real winners, the ones who get ahead, put work first and squeeze everything else in—be it their health, relationships, and recreation—whenever they can. In fact, as this article argues, we live in a time when people have taken to flaunting their busy schedules much like their wealth. 

Leadership guru, Michael Hyatt, calls this belief “the hustle fallacy.” He argues that many of us believe we only have two choices: either work 100+ hours and be a winner or give up on our ambitions and engage in self-care. If we prioritize our needs—be it the need for nutrition, movement, rest, or, God forbid, play and creativity—we’ll be losers at work. But this is faulty thinking. To excel, we need time to recharge.

I knew this other guy in graduate school. Let’s call him Marc. (And just for fun, let’s say I married him years later). He was incredibly disciplined. He woke up every morning at the same time. He was religious about getting 8 hours of sleep. He’d wake up, make his coffee and sit down and write for 4-5 hours. Every morning, right after he woke up. He spent the rest of the day exercising, reading, attending talks, going to meetings, and catching up with friends. Marc seemed to breeze through graduate school. He had fun and was fun to be around. There was a certain lightness to him. 

Marc also finished his dissertation in record time, got a few prestigious, highly competitive grants and scored an awesome job. Marc intuitively understood that he was his biggest asset and that running himself into the ground would be counterproductive. He knew that to succeed at his work, he needed to take care of himself—that he was at the center of everything that mattered to him.

What if you woke up every morning and took care of yourself first? What if you took the time to prepare and then mindfully eat a nutritious and delicious meal? What if you made sure you could exercise every morning, or meditate or engage in some other activity that recharged you? What if you vehemently protected your eight hours of sleep every night, no matter what? And what if you decided that having some fun every day was more important than doing the dishes, folding the laundry or staying up all night to redo that report?

Of course, this is not always possible. There are projects to deliver. Meetings to attend. Appointments to be scheduled, and so on. But what if you flipped things around? What if you came first? And then you scheduled everything else around your need for self-care? Would you be embarrassed? Would you feel guilty? Would you worry about what other people thought? 

The thing is, if we take care of ourselves--if we are selfish--we have more to give.

And the most recent research on productivity and efficiency is saying pretty much the same thing. It’s telling us to do just that. Be selfish. Flip things around. “Protect the asset.” What's the asset, you ask? It’s not the stuff you own. It's you. It’s pretty simple, really. If you are not well, everything else suffers along with you--your work, your relationships, and your community.

Still having a hard time seeing why you need to protect the asset? Try this: Make a list of your top 5 goals in life. What’s important to you? Maintaining a happy relationship with your partner? Spending lots of quality time with your kids? Excelling at work? Effecting social change? Growing spiritually and emotionally? List them in order. Now identify your “push goal.” The idea of a push goal comes from Chalene Johnson. It refers to a goal that makes all the other goals possible. 

When it comes to the big picture, when you think about your top 5 priorities, then your “push goal” will inevitably be your well-being. Think about it. How can you enjoy your relationship with your loved ones to the fullest, if you're not feeling well? How can you generate new ideas and excellent products, if you feel run down, exhausted and unhappy? What will come of your social activism if you’re too run-down to get out of bed? 

You. Come. First. Protect the asset.

Want more food for thought? Here are some articles and podcasts on the theme of self-care that I found particularly interesting:

On why self care isn't selfish.

On why people in leadership positions should take care of themselves.

On how being happy makes you more productive.

On the importance of rest and reflection for boosting creativity.

 

 

 

Why I love my 'stupid' phone.

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I am not a Luddite. I'll be the first to admit that I love Spotify, WhatsApp, and my Seconds Pro exercise app. But I am also a big proponent of being disciplined and deliberate when it comes to digital technologies.

In fact, as a productivity coach, I'll frequently start by getting my clients "digitally unhooked." We'll spend a few sessions creating distance between my new client and his/her phone through various personalized systems and habits. Time and time again, the results are astounding: no matter what my client does for a living, once the phone has been tamed, productivity goes up and anxiety melts away.

This HBR article confirms my experience. Silent mode is not enough. The key is to put your phone in a different room when you're trying to do real, substantive work.

I've even taken it a step further. For about two years now, I have been using an old-school cell phone (or what I lovingly refer to as my "stupid phone"). It's the kind of phone where you have to type each individual letter for each individual word. Needless to say, my reflexive messaging has done down dramatically. I keep my smartphone for music, messaging, and my favorite apps, but I store it in a drawer upstairs in a different room. I only use it for a specific task (and I get some exercise to boot since I have to walk up the stairs to get it). On top of that, I got an alarm clock, so I don't need my phone next to my bed any longer. And I've started using a spiral notebook and a pen to keep track of my ideas and my to-do lists. Recently, I resurrected my digital camera.

Reverting back to paper and pen, having two separate cell phones, an alarm clock and a camera might seem a little excessive to some, but in my case, these slight modifications have had a profound impact on my personal and professional life. I am way more focused, present and mindful  I've been in a long time.

Do you have any hacks or techniques that have helped you free yourself from the grip of your smartphone? I'd love to hear them!

5 Steps to Taking Charge of Your Time

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After graduating from college in 2002, I enrolled in a contemporary dance BFA program in Montreal. My favorite instructor was a petite and dynamic member of the Marie Chouinard Dance Company. Annabelle’s mother tongue was French, but she taught in English. Her class started at 8:00 AM sharp every day, 5 days a week. We did our best to follow her, but it was early, and we were tired.  One particularly sluggish morning, Annabelle started impatiently shaking her head. She then proceeded to jump up and down and yell,

“You must grab the beast by its corns!”

Um. What?

Annabelle was trying to say “take the bull by its horns.” She wanted us to understand that to move forward we needed to squeeze everything out of the time we had. Every day. No exceptions.  Her phrasing was off (and invariably caused us to chuckle) but her admonition to show up ready to focus stuck with me.

I stopped dancing a long time ago, but I still often think of Annabelle and her insistence that we fiercely grab every moment by the horns (or corns as it may be). I think of Annabelle when I spend half of my productive working hours mindlessly cycling through all my social media accounts. Annabelle pops into my mind when I allow my morning to be fractured by the urge to respond to every email and text message on the spot (rather than batching them). I see Annabelle’s frustrated face when I forget to take a moment to assess if that “urgent matter” at work can wait until later.  

Grabbing the beast by its corns means using my time deliberately. Not because I am a productivity freak and workaholic. On the contrary.  I focus intensely on my work precisely so that I have time for other things I love: going for a walk in the woods, reading a novel on the couch, or weeding my prized Hokkaido squash plants. In short, I tightly grab hold of the corns during short intense bursts of productivity, so I can fully let go the rest of the time.

Proactively planning my week is the most effective way I have found to judiciously use my time.  Here are the steps I take so I don't get lost in the whirl of busy-ness:

  1. Every Monday morning I take ten to fifteen minutes to review my larger goals. I then fill out my weekly schedule.

  2. I always start by protecting the asset. This means the first thing I do is block off times for exercise, meditation, meal preparation and mindful eating.

  3. Next, I make sure to block off time for the important people in my life.

  4. Now comes the tricky part: I schedule large chunks of time for my productive work, the kind of work that requires concentrated effort. Productive work is the work that will move me forward in my career. In my case, it’s writing articles and conceptualizing new classes and workshops. For others, this might be drawing new illustrations or editing their films. I get the best results when I schedule my productive work session at the start of the day, ideally before I’ve even checked my email. During my productive work sessions, I commit to switching off my phone and logging off my email and social media accounts.

  5. Finally, I schedule time at the end of my productive work sessions and in the evenings (times when my brain is too tired for productive work) for what I call mindless tasks. Mindless tasks include answering emails, formatting my articles, looking up citations, paying bills and so forth.

Without a plan and a clear sense of what is important, it’s easy to waste time mindlessly reacting to other people’s agendas or compulsively checking your Instagram account.

Try planning out your week this way and see if it helps you grab the beast by its corns.

There is no way around it:  if you don’t take charge of your time, someone or something else will.

Have you found other useful strategies to help you manage your workflow? I’d love to hear about them.

 

 

From Detour To Deliberate (Inside Higher Ed, 1 May 2018)

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The problem of post-Ph.D. employment, particularly for arts and humanities graduates, has become a mainstay topic of higher education blogs, conferences and other discussion forums. Diagnosing the problem’s underlying causes and recommending strategies to solve it -- both on institutional and individual levels -- has become a movement in its own right, as illustrated by the widely used term “alt-ac,” meaning alternative academic careers.

A common theme among commentators is that Ph.D. job seekers should highlight their competencies rather than the content of their field. But a closer look at hiring practices among major nonuniversity employers reveals a serious flaw in this strategy.

The competency approach to Ph.D. studies has gained a lot of traction in recent years. It proposes that departments strengthen non-field-specific training and that graduating Ph.D.s learn to market themselves better to potential employers. Thus, rather than emphasizing an expertise in medieval literature or Italian art history, the job seeker’s résumé should highlight transferable skills like creative thinking, writing, project management or data analysis. This recommendation is based on two assumptions: first, that the skill set that Ph.D.s bring to the table is broader than first meets the eye, and, second, that employers in nonacademic sectors are looking for professionals with such a broad palette of skills. Neither assumption is wrong. Yet the equation still doesn’t hold up.

We have spent the past several years working intensively on the alt-ac problem. One of us specializes in coaching academically trained young professionals -- both those remaining within academe and those transitioning out -- in professional strategies. The other works with organizations to train their emerging leaders. Thus, we have one foot in academe and the other on the outside. That gives us insight into both sides of the equation: the job seekers and the organization that may hire them. We have seen repeatedly in our work that the most successful alt-ac transitions occur when applicants can sell themselves as experts, rather than all-arounders. It’s depth, not breadth, that employers are looking for in Ph.D.s.

A variety of organizations are, in fact, keenly interested in attracting professionals with breadth and intellectual agility. The big consulting firms need their associates to be able to advise an airline on streamlining its ground operations one day, while detecting shortcomings in the business model of an online retailer the next. Moreover, they need their consultants to be able to produce clear and compelling prose. Public-sector organizations require workers who can untangle the complex, interdisciplinary nature of key policy domains, such as education, energy or environmental regulation. For for-profit businesses, from small start-ups to global corporations, professionals who can adapt and learn on the job are valued assets. Most doctoral programs do indeed prepare candidates well for these professional challenges. Those that do not are under increasing pressure to do so.

Despite all that, the odds of a Ph.D. graduate landing one of these jobs is small, which has to do with institutionalized hiring practices. Nonacademic organizations fill their all-rounder positions -- the analysts, associates or other jobs where a candidate’s well-rounded portfolio of abilities trumps a lack of sector-specific knowledge -- with younger applicants, those in their 20s. People in their 30s are hired for their proven expertise, either in management or in a specific domain, and they serve different functions in the organizations. Ph.D.s, especially those who took a few extra years to finish, don’t fit into this hiring schema: they’re often too old for the jobs they’re most suited for but lack the established expertise for the ones that fit their age.

This trend is not rigid; there are exceptions. Yet for entry-level jobs in many sectors, much as in academe, human resources departments can be flooded with applications. Just as many a university hiring committee would rather choose from one of the dozens of applicants with the perfect CV -- top-tier university, famous adviser, competitive grant recipient and the like -- than take a chance on a wild card, most hiring managers play it safe and hire from within the pool of those that fit the ideal profile.

Take, for example, a growing field within large corporations: talent management. Talent management involves identifying, training and retaining the right personnel within an organization. There is hardly a job for which a graduate student with a strong record as a teaching assistant could be better suited. Much of the work involves assessing individuals, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and developing corresponding learning programs.

Because no specific degree prepares a person for such work, the ranks of major talent management divisions are filled with a broad array of undergraduate majors: music, history, engineering, business sciences, psychology and so on. Despite that, we have not seen a single successful case of someone pursuing talent management as an alt-ac career. Young people fill the ranks of the talent-management offices, while the heads of team are promoted internally or hired based on direct talent-management experience at another organization.

With that in mind, strategizing doctoral students should be wary of spending too much energy diversifying their competency base. Instead, a smarter strategy involves establishing a strategic depth. That involves identifying a marketable expertise that is closely related to one’s doctoral research.

For example, a historian researching Nazi perpetrators could build her parallel expertise in political extremism; a sociologist working on the materiality of waste could make his in environmental policy. Establishing a track record of expertise does not have to be time intensive: attending a few choice conferences, authoring a white paper or publishing in newspapers would do the trick. Such small steps are transformative for a nonacademic résumé.

Hiring managers like logical career trajectories, ones in which everything a candidate has done points them toward the job in question. With a few of the aforementioned boxes ticked off, the Ph.D. degree suddenly reads like an expertise-building endeavor rather than a detour. When it comes time to apply for nonacademic jobs, the doctoral student can enter at the age-appropriate “expert” level.

In the case of a consulting firm, for example, rather than being hired as an entry-level associate who is expected to work on a broad range of business problems, the Ph.D. graduate can start as a legitimate expert in energy or education policy. And besides, if she decides to stay in academe after all, she will have that increasingly important element of “public outreach” already ticked off.