Is this what your to-do list looks like?  Mine does.  My responsibilities are largely in support of other teams or persons.  As a result my to-do list is determined by the priorities of others.  I doubt this is unique to me.  The “stuff” I want to do is much lower on the priority list.

When I start my day I prioritize one thing that I really want to get done.  I don’t mean getting a latte or talking with colleagues about fantasy baseball.  I’m talking about a side project or project that means a lot to me.  Often it is a project that I have neglected and need to focus on and get it off my list.  I make it a priority to get something done on that project.

On days where most of my time is devoted to serving others’ needs and priorities this is a nice way to break up my day.  I also use this time to address issues that are not getting attention.  Since they don’t have deadlines there are no expectations, timelines, or deliverables.  I can allocate 30 minutes out of my day on such a project without disrupting or delaying my other responsibilities.  This is where innovation comes from.  I’m not saying any of my priorities represent innovation, but the freedom to work at my own pace enables me to be more objective.

Spending time of a side project also helps my morale.  I’m a self-starter who enjoys identifying and resolving problems.  Finding and resolving an issue makes my day more satisfying and improves my performance on the to-do items that are in service to others.


I titled this post the way I did because that is what I expect you to do if I echoed the title of this blog post, “How to Think Outside the Box.”  Despite using a cliche in its title the post has some worthwhile thoughts.  Here’s one,

Build a Better Relationship With Your Boss: Go out of your way to connect with your boss whenever possible. I don’t mean sucking up…really try and build rapport. If you have a positive relationship with your boss, you will be much more comfortable and likely to generate better ideas and suggestions. (emphasis mine)

Its also got a useful infographic that complements the post nicely.

Does your team:

  • Guard their work from others (avoid sharing)
  • “Tear apart” the work of their peers
  • Take longer to deliver
  • Work long hours as a result
  • Expend more energy than required (which often translates into stress)

If so, it may be caused by leadership that is too focused on what the team missed or not done right.  The net result is stifled creativity and less than ideal team performance.

The characteristics listed above come from an ISPI article on collaboration.  I’ve worked in this type of environment and I know how destructive it can be.   Fear not if this describes your team. The same article offers strategies for correcting this dynamic.

  1. Set clear, attainable, and realistic expectations.
  2. Put your positive pair of glasses on (SB-don’t focus on the negative).
  3. Train your “positive eye” and share findings!
  4. Communicate the importance of sharing ideas and work in progress without criticism (ideas for improvements are welcome).
  5. Buy a positive set for each person on your team.
  6. Schedule meetings where team members can share their “positive eye” findings.

If you don’t like the way your team is working, use the tips above and read the article for some more helpful recommendations.  They can help a dysfunctional team or get an otherwise functional team back on track.

Emphasizing the positive is an investment.  You may not see results immediately.  Hang in there.

Multitasking may help us check off more things on our to-do lists. But it also makes us more prone to making mistakes, more likely to miss important information and cues, and less likely to retain information in working memory, which impairs problem solving and creativity.

This post from Harvard Business Review has three tips for improving your focus.

  1. Tame your frenzy.
  2. Apply the brakes.
  3. Shift Sets.

We all have times when we are stretched thin by circumstances.  This should be the exception not the norm.  If you are having trouble focusing or managing your time I encourage you to read the post and develop a plan for putting them into practice.  If you are wondering where you will find the time to develop a plan, make it a priority and follow the tips in the article linked above.

I may be the last person to see the video below but that is nothing new.  I post this without comment for those who have not seen it and for those who would benefit from the reminder.

In their discussion of The Neuroscience of Leadership, Schwartz and Rock say that focus, or attention, plays a critical role in how we use our working memory on a daily basis.

50 years ago people were not using much working memory.  Now people are required to use their working memory all day.  Every time you get an email with a challenge you’ve got to sit down, you’ve got to think about it, you’ve got to make a decision.  Email is a classic working memory situation.  You’ve got to hold the ideas in mind.

At the core of their findings is working memory.  Working memory is a limited resource that is easily distracted.  Since our days are filled with distractions we need to be intentional about how we manage our time.

In addition to affecting how we use our working memory throughout the day Schwartz and Rock say that “attention has huge power to change the brain.”  In other words, learn.

Performance support systems provide a great way to get the most of our working memory.  They improve productivity by reducing the amount of information a person has to retain.  An example of a performance support system is a search warrant writing tool I  co-developed.  The image below is of a screen where the user inputs information about a person named in a warrant (click to enlarge).

This screen uses filtering to narrow the focus on required information about a person involved in a particular case.  By eliminating unnecessary fields, the user is able to input information with confidence instead of deciding what is necessary or appropriate.

With repeated use, the user will gain confidence and change the way the approach warrant writing.  This is a change in the hardwiring of the brain, which is what it wants to do.

Seth Godin posted an insightful entry on customer and co-worker interaction today.  In it he observes, “when you do your work on someone else’s schedule, your productivity plummets, because you are responding to the urgent, not the important, and your rhythm is shot.”

How many people are dependent on someone else’s schedule?  My guess is higher than it has to be.  One reason is because we aren’t effective communicators.  We use email when a phone call would be faster.  We make a phone call when we don’t need an answer right away and email would get us the same information.

We allow ourselves to be interrupted by email, phone calls, etc (Notice I say “allow.”  Reading email and answering the phone are choices).  According to a Microsoft and University of Illinois study referenced in ‘it takes 17 minutes “for a worker interrupted by e-mail to get back to what she was doing.”‘  If this is true for email, to some degree it is true for phone calls, impromptu visits, and any of the myriad other interruptions you deal with every day.

What can you do to manage your interruptions? 

First, create a to-do list and follow it.  Having things written down will help you stay focused and provides evidence that you are getting things done regardless of how crazy your day gets.
Second, set priorities.  This is respectful of your time and others.  If you are less productive because of interruptions it stands to reason your co-workers are too.  Before you pick up the phone or pop over to someone’s office ask yourself if this is the best time or even necessary.  How else or when else can you get the information that will be less intrusive? 
, manage your email.  Don’t check it constantly.  Set aside time throughout the day to check it.  When you aren’t checking, close the window so its not tempting you.

From a organizational perspective, interruptions should be rare and short when they occur.  Circumstances cause us to be bad time managers from time to time.  These should be exceptions.  Every day should not be endless string of blind corners and crises.

If every work day is unpredictable consider the causes.  What regularly interrupts the flow in your workplace?  Do you feel pressure from others to respond or provide information?  Not everything can be priority 1.  Have you ever met with you co-workers to prioritize communication?  What is really urgent?  What is critical to your business?