Organize Yourself in 2015–Integrate Your Complex Tasks


In the 18th chapter of his book on confronting habits of procrastination called Eat That Frog, Brian Tracy suggests that you ‘slice and dice your complex tasks.”   I prefer to refer to this as “integrating your complex tasks.”

What I mean by “integrate” is the mathematical sense of the term.   When you take the area under a curve, you take the integral of the function that creates the curve.   What this means mathematically, is that you take the areas curve and you cut it into smaller areas by taking squares that are made up of fractions of the length of the two sides.     One square will yield four squares if you take one-half of your square’s length and height as your new base “grid”, nine squares if you take one-third of the side for your base grid, etc.

If you have a complex task, similarly, rather than being overwhelmed with its size or complexity, the best thing to do is to split it up into smaller pieces.    When I make my yearly goals, they sometimes seem like a bit of a stretch, such as this year when I said to myself I wanted to learn a new language, Hindi, at the beginning level at least (A2 on the European Common Reference Scale for foreign language learning).    However, when I split it into months using a Basic Hindi course as a guide, I realized if I did a chapter every two weeks, I would be finished with the course by the end of the year.    However, before starting the Basic Hindi course I needed to take a mini-course to be able to read the Devanagari script in which Hindi is written.   So that was my goal for January.    Using the Memrise app, I found that there are four levels of learning the script and so I assigned one of these to each week.    I’m now halfway through the Devanagari “alphabet”, but it app requires me doing a little bit each day.    I cannot spare an hour an day on this project, but I can spare 5-10 minutes a day, which is all I need to finish the day’s lessons.

My schedule is filled with these kind of daily practices, including the writing of this WordPress blog post, which contribute to my overall goals in a way that is incremental, satisfying, and yet still doable.

But besides the goals that are your own personal goals, it is ESPECIALLY important for those goals at work where you are given some enormous project.     The size and complexity of the project can seem daunting, but you don’t have to finish the project in a day.   You only have to move the ball forward–one unit.    That unit is defined as you want, but I find that for a complex project, one hour a day can be sufficient if there is no artificial deadline you are working under.   This is because it takes a while for your brain to hit the “flow zone” where you are really working in the flow of the task you are doing.   Switching tasks every thirty minutes takes too much “reorienting” time before you really start to get involved in the new task.

For that reason, the complex tasks should be given one hour time units, the medium tasks one-half hour, and the smaller tasks can be fifteen minutes or less.   But the trick is to do something!

My mother once told me that if there was something unpleasant or difficult to be done, promise yourself that you will at least START on the work and do five minutes worth.   If after five minutes worth of work, you elect to quit, then do so, and pick it up again at the same time the next day for five more months.   This gives your brain a psychological “safety valve” so that you don’t feel under too much pressure.   However, once you start a task, nine times out of ten, you realize that “hey, this isn’t so bad,” and most of the difficulty was a mental projection based on your own irrational fear rather than anything approaching reality.

If you get to five minutes, and you think, well, maybe I could do more, then stretch out your commitment to 15 minutes, and so on until you hit one hour.   AND THEN STOP NO MATTER WHAT!

At least take a break for air, and then look back and see what you’ve accomplished in that hour and give yourself some sort of reward for having so!     In this way, you will wear down the fear or anxiety that is at the root of a lot of procrastination.

If you “integrate” your work in that way, you will definitely “differentiate” yourself from the crowd!   🙂

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Organize Yourself In 2015–Create Buffer Zones in Your Schedule


In the 17th chapter of his book Eat That Frog! about combating procrastination, Brian Tracy brings up one of his signature ideas on boosting productivity, and that is to have specific times of the day, and specific days of the week where you cut yourself off from input in the forms of electronics and concentrate on getting work done.    He also in the 19th chapter talks about “Create Large Chunks of Time”, but I find that goal to be pretty much the same as that of Creating Buffer Zones, in that a) you need to screen distractions out in order to pull creativity and productivity in.

I call these times “buffer zones” because they stop input from coming in and adding to your work load.   This will help you have certain dedicated hours usually the very first part of the morning and the very first part of the afternoon after lunch, where you will be able to concentrate on your top priority tasks, or “frogs” in Brian Tracy’s special parlance he explains in his book.

John Cleese of Monty Python fame says that creativity or what he calls the “open mode” of thinking requires five elements:  a certain regular space where you seal yourself off so you are not disturbed, a beginning and ending time (think of “office hours” for a teacher at college), a certain level of confidence and lack of fear of making a mistake, and sense of humor that evokes your sense of play.

Element

Explanation

1. Space Create space for yourself away from demands that accompany the closed mode. Seal yourself off where you will be undisturbed.
2. Time (endpoints) You need to create your space at a specific beginning time and a specific ending time in order to create an atmosphere which is closed off from the closed mode in which we normally operate.
3. Time (duration) You need to create sufficient time within which to allow truly creative solutions to emerge.
4. Confidence Allow yourself to play and suppress the fear of making a mistake.
5. Humor Use humor to become more spontaneous and creative.

Although you may work in an office where inter-connectivity with your bosses, your colleagues, and your team members is important, you need to be able to create, as much as possible, at least two zones of “open mode” time in your day so that you can use your best self towards the truly important problems you need to solve.   Obviously, the “open mode” works for groups as well as individuals when you are brainstorming, but you need to be able to nurture some time in your schedule, or buffer zones, every day so that you are not constantly buffeted around like a snowflake in a blizzard of incoming e-mails, phone calls, and websites.

Once a day (most people do this on Sunday), he recommends going for the whole day where you unplug from the normal stimulants of news programs, newspapers, etc., and you allow yourself to look at the previous week and at the upcoming week in a sort of 10,000-foot view, where you can reflect back on what you have done, what has worked and what hasn’t, and where you can plan out the various areas of your life for the coming week and really try to brainstorm to make sure you capture everything as best you can.

The existence of these buffer zones should be communicated to those around you so that, at a certain point, when they see it is a certain time of day, they won’t even bother trying to get a hold of you until the buffer zone is past.   And if somebody does call you and leaves a message, usually an hour delay in response will not make a difference.   Of course, if you are working on a high-profile project, you need to have a signal, such as someone texting you, that you will accept if it means that a response is truly urgently needed at that second and cannot possibly wait for an hour.   In reality, few situations except real emergencies will warrant such intrusion.

In this way, you can put your best self to work during the week and every day during that week!

Organize Yourself in 2015–Plan Pessimistically, Implement Optimistically


This is the sixteen chapter of Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, which teaches you how to avoid procrastination in your life.   However, his title is “Motivate Yourself Into Action.”  Why did I change the title so radically?   For the following reason:

When you plan, you need to think of your own weaknesses and the threats from outside that may keep you from achieving your goal.    These are risks or risk factors that you need to consider.    You can have one of four strategies with regards to these risks:

  1. Accept
  2. Mitigate
  3. Transfer
  4. Avoid

If you have a risk which is high or which may have a high impact on your plan, you can try to mitigate or risk.  If the risk is high and it may have a high impact on your plan, and there is nothing you can do to mitigate or reduce that risk, you may want to see what you can do avoid the risk.    If the risk is low but it may have a high impact on your plan, you may want to see what you can do to transfer the risk but getting others involved in the plan.    If a risk is low and will only have a low impact on your plan, you may just decide to accept it and get on with the plan.

This is what I mean by the phrase “Plan Pessimistically”.   You need to account for, ahead of time, those risks or risk factors which may happen to derail your plan because there may just be someway you can try to reduce them ahead of them.

However, once you’ve got the risk response in response, then you need to switch to being optimistic when actually carrying out your plan.   Here’s Brian Tracy’s four pointers on how to do this:

  1. Look for the good in every situation.   If something goes wrong, then look for something good or beneficial from it.
  2. Seek the valuable lesson in every setback or difficulty.    The soil which helps plants grow is made up of the remnants of dead plants.   In a similar way, make your plans healthy by making them grow by learning from those setbacks or obstacles you’ve already encountered.
  3. Look for the solution to every problem.   Always focus on the solution to the problem, rather than spending any emotional energy attaching blame to someone, or by complaining about things when they go wrong.    Your key phrase is, “okay, so what’s the next step?”
  4. Think and talk continually about your goals.   Don’t just think and talk about them, write them down.    Visualize them.   By picturing the goals you watch to achieve in the future as already having occurred in the past and the results as existing in the present, you will train your subconscious mind to start trying to make that reality come about.

Let’s say you are now a pessimist and do not follow these tips for being an optimist.   How can you change?    You can do it in 21 days.   Write a gratitude journal for 21 days following the advice of Shawn Achor, a psychologist who studies positive psychology, by reading the following blog post:

https://4squareviews.com/2014/11/27/21-days-to-a-more-positive-life-through-using-a-gratitude-journal

I guarantee you will come out with a more positive outlook.   And with that more positive outlook, you will find more and more of your goals coming into fruition!

 

Organize Yourself in 2015–Remember It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint


One of the best ways to increase your productivity is to make sure you build some time in your schedule for inactivity, also known as rest.

Remember that when you create your list of categories that comprise your life, one of the most effective ways of making sure all aspects of your life are covered is to use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.    At the very bottom of the pyramid is the most basic need, the need for survival.   I usually put “Health” on this basic level of needs.

Here’s what I recommend you build specifically into your schedule.

1.   Exercise

You need to build time in your schedule for exercise, both strength training and cardio training.  You can do a form of circuit training, which combines aspects of the two, such as in the Spartacus routine described in Men’s Health.   (I have a blog post on this routine, which I use personally, elsewhere on this blog–such put the word “Spartacus” in the “Search” box area and the post will come up.)

2.  Meditation

Meditation is worth its weight in sanity.   15 minutes of meditation in the morning can help you maintain an equilibrium state when all around you there is disequilibrium.

3.  Sacred Space

This does not mean “church”, it means a time of the week that you rope off from your normal activities.   This is when you do the hobby that you love to do; creativity rather than traditional spirituality, is the watchword here.

4.  Inspirational Reading

Although this could be a spiritual book, it is a book which inspires you to not only do more, but become something more than you are.

5.  Sleep

If you overwork yourself, you will under-perform.   Those companies that require you to work more than 8-hour days are short-sighted.   I’m not talking about special projects, I’m talking about overtime (usually unpaid) hours on a regular basis.   Not only does it show poor resource planning on the part of the company, but they will trade short-term productivity advantage with long-term burnout.

So do what you can to make sure you get adequate sleep.   Your company may not own you 24/7 (although they might like to), but you can make a bargain with them in that, although they require 100% of your time, you will get sufficient rest so that when you are at work, you give them 100% of your effort and attention!

These tools will give you the inner strength and stamina to run the race as a marathon, and not as a short-distance sprint.

Organize Yourself in 2015–Gamify Your Goals


The fourteen chapter of Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy is called “Put the Pressure on Yourself.”   It deals with making sure you set deadlines for each of your goals in order to, as the title of the chapter says, put pressure on yourself.

However, I want to take a different approach and to label this “Gamify Your Goals.”   Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems and increase users’ self contributions.   It is being used increasing in team settings such as project management, but you can use it on yourself.

1.  Don’t Concentrate on Finishing a Task, Concentrate on Starting It!

One game you can play with yourself when you have a task that you are dreading to do because of its difficulty or complexity is not to worry about finishing it.   Tell yourself “today I will start the project, do only 30 minutes of work on it, and then quit for the day.”    You see, when you conjure in your mind the image of how complex the project or task is, you are tiring yourself out mentally.   But no matter how bad the task is, you can easily do half an hour’s work, can’t you?

So go into with gusto for half an hour–and then give yourself permission to quit.   Or continue, if you so feel like it!.

The reason is that once you start the project, if you decide to work hard on the task at hand for half an hour, you will find that you get are getting into the flow of the work.   Your first reaction will be, “hey, this isn’t so bad.”   And maybe, just maybe, you will get enough into the task that the momentum will carry you forward.

If it doesn’t, don’t worry.   You see, just the fact that you have already started it will give you a sense of accomplishment, so when you start forth the next day to continue where you left off, the “fear factor” will have greatly diminished, because it was essentially a figment of your imagination

2.   Stick First, Then Carrot

Let’s say there is an activity that you want to do and an activity that you must do that particular day.    Have the pleasurable activity as a reward that you give yourself, for 10-15 minutes, after you do a solid block of work on the task that must be done.    If there is an activity that you want to do that takes more time, like playing a video game or watching a movie then last that be the “end of the week” treat that you give yourself if you have done 5 solid blocks of work on the “A” level tasks during the week.   You will be associating the difficult tasks with the pleasurable sense you get from the reward.

However, you have to make sure that you really earn your reward and don’t cheat on the system!

3.  Badges

On the way towards your goal, there are milestones along the way, and even if there aren’t, you can create them in terms of “percent complete”:  25% done, 50% done, etc.    Make sure on your list of tasks that you have a column that says “DONE” where you can put a circle or checkmark next to the tasks that are complete.   Not only is it immediately satisfying to put a mark next to a task, especially an “A” or a “B” level one, once it is complete, but it serves at the end of the day as a retrospective instant review to see how many “badges” you have collected for the day.

And if you have a really good day filled with many “badges” earned, then brag about it:   on your Twitter account, your Facebook page, or your journal (I have a gratitude journal where I mark down if I am grateful for a particularly productive day).

The voice of achievement in the form of badges, rewards, etc., is an important matter to supply yourself with to keep up your motivation.   Some days you will fly like the wind; other days you may find forward movement like trying to run through water.   It’s on those days that your efforts to gamify your goals will really pay off.    It keeps you to keep on going!

Organize Yourself in 2015–Identify Your Key Constraints


Your plan, combined with your passion, will move you forward towards achieving your goals.   But sometimes on the way to achieving those goals, you encounter something that prevents you from attaining it, a constraint which limits your efficiency.

In the thirteen chapter of his book Eat That Frog! on preventing procrastination, Brian Tracy states this principle of improving your ability to organize yourself, and that is the subject of today’s post.

1.   The Pareto Principle in Action

The Pareto Principle applied to constraints means that only 20% of the limiting factors are external to you or to your organization, which means that 80% of them are internal to you or your organization.   This is actually good news because these 80% are factors which, being internal, are under your control.    You can do something about them!

2.  Examples of Constraints

You should identify goals that you set for yourself in the past which you have not been able to achieve, or those “frog” tasks which you have either put off or not completed.   What’s the limiting factor or constraint which is preventing you?

a.  People

Is there someone’s help you need?   Or someone’s decision you need to get first before completing a task?

b.  Weakness (at certain critical skills)

Is this a task which you don’t want to do or that you don’t feel you can do because you are not sure how to do it?   Then you may need to read a book or watch a YouTube, or get advice from someone who does know how to do it?

c.  Time

Is this a task which you gave yourself an hour to do, and you realized when you got into it that it would at least 4 hours, or even 4 days to do?    Well, here’s where you can invite others to help by delegating parts of it to others.

d.  Cost

It may be that you realize that the materials you need for your task are not at hand and you have to go and purchase them.  Or you go to purchase them and you realize that they are going to be more expensive than you had anticipated.

e.  Fear

Don’t underestimate this as a constraint on your achieving your ambitions!    Let’s say someone says their goal is to be a better public speaker.    I would recommend them to join Toastmasters just like I did a little over 4 years ago now.    Let’s say you join the Toastmasters Club and your task is write your first speech.   But every time you think about being in front of a group of relative strangers and pouring your heart out, your pen freezes up and you can’t think about what to write.  It could be that fear of doing that speech is causing your temporary “writer’s block.”   Try to face your fears, but if you have difficulty doing that, then read the book The Now Habit, by psychologist Neil Fiore, Ph.D., which helps you uncover the psychological reason(s) for your procrastination and helps you to overcome it.

3.  Key Question about Key Constraints

The best way to get the most mileage out of the idea of constraint is to ask yourself the following key question:

What one goal, if I achieved it in the coming year, would have the greatest positive effect on my life?

Determine the one key constraint, internal or external, that prevents you from accomplishing this goal or slows your pace down towards accomplishing it.

Then take one step, any step, towards eliminating that constraint!   You will have done yourself a service the magnitude of which will only become apparent later after you reach your goal, look backwards and say with a sigh, “I made it!”

Organize Yourself in 2015–Leveraging Your Talents


“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

Archimedes

Look at the successes you had last year.   Now bring your focus out a bit more and look at the successes you’ve had in the past five years.   And finally, look back on your entire career and asking yourself the following questions:

What has been most responsible for my success in the past?   What am I really good at?   (Or what have I become good at over the years, even if I wasn’t good at it at the beginning of my career?)

Now switch to thinking of the future:   if you won the lottery or came into an enormous amount of money and you could choose any job or any part of a job to do for the indefinite future, what work would you choose?   (These questions are from Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, chapter 12.)

Of course, in the previous chapters I’ve talked about “frogs”, that is, the most important tasks that you have to do.   As you may recall from previous posts, the whole point of Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog! is that you should shift to doing those “frog” tasks, i.e., those of the highest priority, as soon as possible in the day.   In that way, not only will you continue the day with a sense of accomplishment, but by facing them first thing in the day you will strengthen your “anti-procrastination muscles” in your head.

However, just like in fairy tales, sometimes a “frog” is actually a “prince” in disguise.   There are tasks which are in the areas where you have special talents and that you most enjoy.   The goal in your career is to maneuver yourself in the organization you work for, or in the industry you work in, or in your profession in general, in such a way as to leverage your special talents, where you are a “prince” among “frogs”.

Just to give an example–I found in college that I had a passion for learning foreign language, although my undergraduate major was engineering physics.   By the time I went to graduate school, I decided to parlay my love of foreign languages into my choice of future career, so I majored in Asian Studies and studied the Chinese and Japanese–not just the languages, but the culture, literature, history, and even philosophy from the countries of China and Japan.

When I graduated, I was chosen to be a technical translator at Mitsubishi Motors Corporation in Tokyo.   However, after my first initial years in this position, the HR department had an idea of using me to help with their litigation management.   The details are unimportant, but although I enjoyed what I was doing to a certain extent, the more and more time I spent at Mitsubishi the less and less time I was using my Japanese language abilities.    Then in 2004 when I was laid off from that company, I went to work for an insurance company where I was doing something similar, but for many Japanese manufacturers who were their clients.   In 2010, I was laid off from that position, but couldn’t get a job in litigation management because that kind of position was a relatively niche job and there weren’t a lot of them out of there.    And the places I did apply now made it plain that they required you to have a law degree to enter the position.   I tried taking a step back and offering to do claim management, but was told “sorry, you’re overqualified.”   I couldn’t win for losing.

After a year of networking, I came across people who asked me the same questions I wrote at the top of this post:   What has been most responsible for my success in the past?   What am I really good at?   I responded that I’m good at communication in the sense that I love studying foreign languages and cultures, and I’m good at cross-functional communication, that is, getting lawyers, engineers, and accountants to talk to each other even though they often speak different business languages, so to speak.

So someone suggested project management and I took a community college course, then a course at New Horizons, and finally got my CAPM certification.    I was fascinated, and got to work on using project management for many volunteer jobs, including those at the Project Management Institute itself.    I realized that I am an organized person, so planning is something I actually enjoy doing, but more importantly, when I see problems related to communication such as conflict management, I don’t dread those problems, I relish them because, frankly, I tend to be good at getting disparate people if not to totally respect one another, to at least be willing to work together with them (which is half the battle).

In the same way that I improve my key skills in areas that will make me a better project manager (see previous post), I also look for opportunities to play on my strengths.   Those tasks that I do for work which also coincide with my strengths I call my “prince” tasks, and I love the time I spend doing them.   If you shine at those kind of tasks, sooner or later the people you work for will notice, and will realize that what had the unassuming appearance of a frog was actually a prince (or princess) in disguise!

Now in today’s economy, finding such a position or job is a lucky accident, but you can make yourself more “accident-prone” if you shine at tasks where your natural gifts come to the fore.   So here’s to positioning yourself in 2015 for “lucky accidents” to come your way!