My secret mindset and habits for success and high-efficiency in daily business
I’m in the information technology business now for more than a decade and from the beginning on, I tried to optimize my working day. It was ever since a process of do->analyze->optimize and the uncertainty of life, changing responsibilities and personal expectations are continuously adding new variables to the underlying equations. But I think I’m doing quite well!
This article is for everyone who strives to be successful in life — no matter if you just enrolled at university, if you strive to create your own business or if you’re running a multi-million dollar company. Some of my takeaways will sound familiar to you, some will be “too much”, some will help you: Take the best, forget the rest.
What counts most?
Mankind loves cherry picking. If you’re in the position to do so… lucky you, but that’s not the case for the most of the people. The most important thing is to get a clear view of what you want. You can do that by creating a table with things that are important to you and giving them an importance, e.g. a number from 1 (Not really important) to 10 (I want this more than anything else). You would put a 10 everywhere, sure. That’s why you restrict the sum of values ;-) So whenever you change one priority, this has an impact on other priorities.
Nothing in life is as constant as change, so it’s okay to change priorities and therefore I added two columns in below example.
Like most of the folks, I finished university and wanted to make career and money. My family was around anyway, I wanted to see the world and didn’t care too much about environmental impact etc. (yes, I was a bad person in that respect). But things changed and the more experience I gained and the more I’ve seen from the world, the less important has become money and career. The later also due to the fact that I came close to my personal goal.
Take away: Find out what’s really important for you
Measure performance to reach your goals
Every priority defined needs a performance indicator that you can easily measure. Without that, you’d just do something without knowing it’s good or bad. For some priorities, this is an easy activity: “Make money” can be measured with “Salary per year”, “Income per year”, “Expenses per month”. But how would one measure “Make the world a better place”? “Donations per year” would be a starting point, but you need to figure your performance indicators yourself.
Take away: Define measurable, quantitative performance indicators to measure your success.
Optimization #1: Lifetime
I’m not good at accepting limitations and one thing that drove me crazy from the beginning on was that I cannot have all of it. Why did I need to make a choice between traveling and making money? Why is there such a strong correlation between the time with beloved ones and the career? How can I increase the total points available for my priorities?
It’s all about time. Time is the most valuable resource you own and everyone has the same amount of it. I realized that obviously some people have a higher total for their priorities compared to me. Even if I remove the cherry pickers that fell on the sunny side of life, there are still many left. As a matter of fact, they seem to make use of their time more efficiently than me. So I started a little tracking exercise to see how my time was spent over a typical week.
I try to sleep 8.5 hours and this is a constant for me. Except weekends where I get up early for a long day in the mountains on one day and where I need to recover with a good sleep the day after. I don’t game a lot, my office is just around the corner and I do sports regularly.
A 50 hours work-week… reflecting priorities… Is my life dedicated to work or do I work so I can live my life? This is again a personal thing, but I don’t want to spend much more than ~50% of my lifetime with working. That resulted in the fact that I need to optimize my working time.
Take away: Find out if you waste time and what you’re ready to invest to reach your goals
Optimization #2: Work time
In the consulting business (and any other service oriented business), the equation is simple:
Money = Time x Rate
When I started my own business after university, I had mostly fixed-price projects. These were one of the best exercises I had in my career as I was forced to boost my performance to increase my rate.
I started really chaotic, did not care about the things I’ve been taught in my project management classes and thought that I don’t need concepts or planning. If you can answer one or more questions with no… welcome to the club:
- Do you usually finish your tasks in time?
- Do you have a task list?
- Do you usually think you’ve been productive at the end of the day?
- Do you have daily objectives?
- Do you know how much time you spend with meetings?
- Do you define a goal or objective when sending out meeting requests?
- Do you fill out your time reporting/time tracking at least once a day?
Let me try to provide you a both logical and practical approach to get more out of your day…
Take away: Be self-critical and evaluate if you see room for optimization
Develop the ability to break down complicated things into smaller ones
Some things seem to be impossible to achieve. As a mountaineer, I’m a lot in the mountains and from below, many summits seem to be too hard and too far away. But I learned not to drive myself nuts by breaking the route to the summit down to smaller chunks. It turned out that in many cases, the way to the summit is 80% easy going and 20% challenging. And every percent of the 20% challenges are doable with the right planning and equipment.
This is the same with projects, pitch documents or whatever makes you sweat. I tend to break things down level by level (where level can be measured in time, program components, chapters of a document etc.) until I’m satisfied with the complexity.
Take away: Complexity is a matter of scale. Look closer and find the doable parts that build up the complex thing.
Get a personal project management system or task list
This really changed my life… a long time back, I started to keep track of my tasks. First on paper, then in an excel sheet, then in some online tools. Today I’m using phabricator, an open source tool that comes with task lists, kanban boards etc.
Take away: No matter if it’s trello, jira or phabricator. Find a tool that fits your needs.
Learn to write tasks the right way
Once you have a tool, it’s important to write tasks the right way. Sounds simple, but it’s not. I tried to use story points, different categories, components and made things pretty complicated. Nowadays I’m going back to the roots. What turned out to be useful is to define a SMART goal for each task:
- Time bound
For example, task like “Do homework” is a good starting point, but it misses most of above characteristics. Better would be: “Do mathematics homework #12 until today 7 p.m.”.
It is a bit more specific (mathematics), measurable (#12 done or not), achievable (considering #12 is no rocket science), relevant (because it directly affects my grade) and time bound (7 p.m.).
This applied to my real business life has one drawback: My life is not as easy as mathematics homework. That’s where the next thing comes into game.
Take away: Writing good tasks needs practice. If you do it, do it right and write SMART tasks.
Plan your day ahead
There’s just one thing left — and this is the hardest one: You need planning. I hear your doubts, believe me. But the truth is that it works.
- It worked for all of us in school when the schedule planned our day.
- It works when you book flights and hotels for you next road trip.
- It works when you need to go shopping to cook your favorite dish.
Unless you’re working in an emergency room, as a taxi driver or you’ve got another other-directed profession, you’re at least able to plan your day to a certain extent.
For some reason, I see some strange de facto performance indicators in business like “meetings per day” and “switch-of-tasks-per-hour”. Seriously… it seems there exists a virtual service level agreement in peoples minds that makes them start one thing and then do five others.
The one thing
On a flight back from the US a couple of years ago, I purchased the book “The one thing” by Gary Keller (https://www.the1thing.com/shop/the-one-thing). Beside many useful and interesting insights, the book is about focusing to just one important thing that needs to be done. But hey, give it a read or check the many summaries out here.
He brought to paper some things I felt that I was doing even before reading that book. And that encouraged my to go on with that, even if this one thing didn’t work for me.
Take away: Planning needs time, but it’s well spent and you’ll reach your goals in less time.
This is how I do it…
If you followed me that far, it seems that you’re interested in a last practical advice. Here we go… this is how I do it:
I get up earlier than most of my colleagues and reserve my quality time which is from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. for the work that has the most impact on my business.
My day is divided into 4 blocks, 2 hours each. When I have a good cappuccino at 6.45 a.m., I browse through my personal task list and adjust priorities. This takes no more than 10 min. I assign the two tasks, which are the most important ones (usually these are two tasks that either block other colleagues or are of strategic importance), to the blocks from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 9.15 a.m. to 11.15 a.m.
The the third block is always dedicated to support, communication and meetings. The fourth block is my project management block where I close accomplished tasks, create new ones, control the progress of my colleagues etc.
What’s so special about that is that I can proof significant progress already at lunch time. I don’t really care much about the afternoon. Even if this totally crashes or gets stuffed with meetings, I’m happy because I resolved already two important tasks. I really love to tick the “done” box in my task tool. It’s a psychological trick that works well for me.
If one day or another runs out of control, I don’t freak out. Things happen. What makes a difference for me is that I keep trying to follow that process. The more often I can apply this pattern, the more effective I am and the less stress I have. And this is not based on guessing… I’ve got tons of data that proofs that as I have a fine grained time tracking where I put my feeling behind every entry. Guilty… I’m a data freak. And I’m still within the process of optimization. Do you have any thoughts or feedback? I’d be keen to hearing from you!