The Pathway to Your Best Work.

I used to live in Northern California. The thing I loved about living there was that there were hundreds of hiking trails within an easy drive (or walk). I remember taking on Mount Saint Helena or Mount Diablo on a given weekend or just heading to Foothill Park with my dogs. There was always the choice of which trail to take. The well-trodden or the elusive deer trail, the steep or the flat, the fastest to the top or the meandering scenic view. There was always a choice to be made. the pathway to your best work

The same is true for your best work. You make decisions every day, every moment about doing your best work. There is the steep, arduous trail or the meandering poppy strewn path. The ball is always in your court on which approach to take. Whether it’s deciding on what to have for breakfast, whether to purchase that fixer upper house or working on your novel. How you approach these decisions is always up to you and there are ways to make it an easier, less stressful path.

So here are some ideas on the pathway to your best work:

1. Early. Getting started early in the day is critical. I know you night owls out there are rolling your eyes. You start the day with a hundred units of energy. Every day. And it is impossible to replenish those 100 units. Once those units are spent, they are gone for good. The only way to insure that you have the energy to spend on your best work means you need to start early so if the cable goes out or your boss calls an emergency budget meeting, you’ve already spent some precious units on your best work. Expect interruptions.

2. Space. Clear the space to focus. I wrote about this recently. Find a clutter free, pleasant, quiet environment to do your best work. Do you want to hike the rocky trail where you need to pay attention to every step or the clear path where you can stroll unencumbered? Physically clear your work space so that it’s a comfortable or find a space that is. I had a client once who went to the library to find a quiet space to study without interruptions. If you are over twenty, when was the last time you went to a library to do your work? Find some clear space.

3. Satisfice. This concept was proposed by Dr. Barry Schwartz and summarized by Emilia Lahti as “Satisficing simply means to not obsess about trying to maximize every single task outcome and ROI.” In the last 30 years, your local grocery store has gone from 9,000 choices of products to about 40,000 choices. That is an explosion of choices when the average person buys about 100 core products. I shop once a week. I make a list for all my meals for the week and then purchase them all on Saturday morning. I try and minimize the amount of time I am surrounded by the onslaught of choices and I’m OK if my bananas aren’t green by Wednesday. I satisfice.

4. Minimize decisions. In Daniel Levitin’s book, The Organized Mind, he wrote that when Warren Buffet travels he eats Oreos and milk for breakfast. He doesn’t want to think or spend time trying to figure out the optimum breakfast. So when he’s in a hotel in New York City, he has Oreos and milk for breakfast. Done. Now on to his best work. Don’t clutter your head with unnecessary decisions. I actually eat the same thing for breakfast during the week (a berry smoothie but I might need to give Warren’s a try). Don’t spend your energy on small decisions.

5. Sleep on it. Levitin posits that sleeping on something improves your thinking. Studies have shown that participants learning rubric’s cubes and Tetris exhibited improved performance after a night of sleep. Your unconscious mind works on it overnight and has the ability to make new connections in your neural pathways. The participants were able to double their success rates after one night of sleep. Maybe this is why the SAT exams are first thing in the morning? Now this isn’t going to happen through osmosis. Don’t put a Spanish dictionary under your pillow and cross your fingers. You need to spend focused time on the topic before sleeping on it. Grab your pillow!

6. Flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s book, Flow, is all about optimal performance. Flow is the state of consciousness where you are engaged, creative and completely immersed in your work. There are ways to set yourself up for flow. Find meaning in your work. Tie it to your purpose, make sure it’s challenging and that you feel qualified for the challenge. If I don’t think I can hike for 3 hours, or that my boots are on their last legs, I won’t be able to find flow.

7. Task. Only focus on the one task. As Levitin described, trying to multitask actually burns glucose in our brains. When we try to talk on the phone and go through our inbox at the same time, we are depleting nutrients in our brain. Our anxiety and cortisol levels go up. You end up feeling exhausted which leads to impulsive, poor decisions. Task switching just means you are doing more things only half way (or less). You never get to the top of the mountain if you are constantly switching trails. Stay on task.

I have to say that when I write, I follow these guidelines. I block off time on Saturday and Sunday morning to sit down and write. I spend several nights reflecting on what I want to write. When I’ve tried to write on a Wednesday afternoon after a long day of work or break it up over several days, the end product is not as good. I think I’ve found the right path. How do you do your best work?

5 Strategies to Optimize Your Strengths

As leaders and managers we seem to spend a lot of time focusing on everyone’s weaknesses or short-comings; very often our own. Performance improvement plans, appraisals, report cards and even weighing yourself can focus on the negative. The area that needs improvement. The areas we or our direct reports fell short. I can focus on the typo my assistant had in an email and totally overlook the project he took on all by himself, flawlessly. It’s always easy to default to picking out what went wrong in order to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Whether it’s the B on the report card with the balance being all A’s, remember the brownie you had yesterday when you weigh a pound more even though you also ran 10 miles or focusing on the budget shortfall when sales are way above expectations. We focus on the weaknesses and try and mitigate them.optimize your strengths
How about focusing and leveraging your or others strengths? I can remember a Marketing Director who was horrible at catching typos. Catching typos is pretty important when it comes to marketing collateral. The director was outstanding at design and implementation but wasn’t that great at details. I can identify with this. I’m horrible at details. Grammar even. So do we send the Marketing Director and me to a course on finding mistakes and typos or do we find someone who “loves” to find all the flaws? They actually find it a challenge to make sure an entire document is flawless. We can send us to courses, school and for an MBA but it’s only going to mitigate the issues. We will never be flawless. It’s best to play to our strengths and find someone else to pick up the slack on our weaknesses.

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So here is how to do that:

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1. Inventory. Take an inventory of what you are good at. In Scott Adams’ book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, he suggests recalling what you loved to do when you were 10 years old. What could you spend hours at? I can remember setting up class rooms and pretending to be a teacher or creating plays when I was a kid in our basement. Hmmm. Maybe that’s why I like facilitating and coaching. Another option is to take an assessment like Strengths Finders. If you purchase the book, they give you an access code to take the assessment. My top three strengths are Strategic, Relator and Positivity. It’s good to know. Being a claims adjuster or mortician might be a bad fit. Inventory your strengths.

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2. Delegate. Figure out your weaknesses, and if possible, delegate them. I’m really fortunate that one of the members of “Cathy’s Brain Trust” (folks who give me feedback before I post these posts) is an English Major. Actually, you all are very fortunate that she is an English Major because grammar isn’t my strong suit. I also don’t have a very good handle on Excel. I can do the basics but it’s tedious to me. I have no desire to attend classes to become an Excel wiz. If I can avoid working on a spreadsheet, I delegate. So look at your team. Are you trying to make someone who loves sitting at a computer trouble shooting, try and improve their customer service skills? If they aren’t friendly and accommodating, perhaps there is someone else who is better suited to take phone calls. As any good team coach would say, put your aces in their places. Delegate your weaknesses.

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3. Dedicate. Now dedicate some blocks of time to your strengths and get into the flow. Csíkszentmihályi (the psychologist who coined the idea of flow) described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Parlay what you are good at so that you can do your best work. This is much more productive (and enjoyable) instead of trying to fix your weaknesses. It’s also a much more positive experience. Dedicate blocks of time to flow.

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4. Reflect. Takes some time to reflect on your accomplishments. From my years of coaching experience, this is something most of us don’t do. Take a look back on what you accomplished with your strengths. Acknowledge yourself for all that you have contributed to the world. Even small things can add up. Did you just run your fastest time for a 5k? Did you spend a half hour with your aging mother? Did you pay it forward by buying a latte for the car behind you? Did you make a contribution to ALS? Did you make sure you smiled at a stranger at the grocery store? All of these things add up. Take stock and reflect on all that you have accomplished.

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5. Assess. Assess your optimization of your strengths. The strengths that you have are your gifts. Make sure you are using them. Take my biggest strength, Strategic. I’m talented in creating alternative ways to proceed. If there is any given scenario, I quickly spot patterns and issues. When I am coaching or facilitating, I’m open to all options which enhances my students and clients thinking. When I am given a set curriculum that is regimented and unbending, I might as well be in a straight jacket. I suffocate. I make sure that I have an outlet for my strategic strengths. If you were a concert pianist, a toy xylophone would be an insult and unbearable. If someone enjoys people, don’t put them in a window-less office for 8 hours a day. Assess the utilization of your strengths.

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I realize that most of us can’t spend 60 hours a week on just our strengths and delegate taking the trash out for the rest of our lives. I do think you can strike a balance so that you and the folks around you can feel empowered by making sure that their gifts are being utilized on a daily basis.

Carrot or Stick?

How do we get people to fall in line?  Is it best to use a carrot (incentive plan, appreciation or chocolate cake) or a stick (“you’re grounded”, late payment fees or speeding tickets).  As Daniel Pink outlined in his book “Drive”, it can be a puzzling question.  There is a study outlined in a book done by Dan Ariely where three different groups in India were given tasks to do in a same period of time but they were compensated at three different rates.  The equivalent of $.50 (a day’s pay), $5 (two weeks pay), or $50 (five months pay).  The group at $.50 and $5 were comparable in results but the $50 group underperformed! More compensation had the opposite affect.  Those who receive the larger amount of incentive actually perform slower.  This really doesn’t seem to make sense.  Wouldn’t more money mean more output? Wouldn’t 5 months pay drive performance in an underdeveloped  country?  It didn’t. Carrot or Stick

I was in training at a “Telling Ain’t Training” workshop taught by Harold Stolovich.  In one of the sections of the training, we all did a Boggle challenge with 16 letters to use to make as many 3 letter+ words as possible.  On my page, it stated that “You have 3 minutes to make at least 20 words of 3 letters or more.  People at your level usually obtain this result.” Half the group had this instruction, the other half did not have it.  I was in the group that had the expectation that I would be able to make at least 20 words.  My brain locked up!  The expectation for performance shut my brain down.  The group that didn’t have the expectation of 20 words out-performed my group. So how do we go about motivating people?  How do we get them to perform in a maximum way?

Here are some tips to drive performance:

1. Simple.  If the job is simple, the carrot will work.  If it doesn’t take creativity, imagination or analysis, then use the carrot.  I have a very weak stomach.  If someone says their kid is throwing up at home, I immediately feel queasy.  I inform you of this because once my beloved dog got sick in the middle of our living room.  I went to my purse and took out a twenty dollar bill, gave it to my son and said “Take care of it.”  Simple and straight forward.  Telling him to clean it or be grounded, would not have worked. There are times when a carrot will work.

2. Pain.  There are some things that require pain to drive performance.  Pain generally will work if the result is immediate and is obvious.  If there is going to be a painful result, such as a late fee, or loss of use of a cell phone (oh no!) and the person knows that will be the result of paying the bill late or staying out past midnight; it will drive performance.  I implemented a wellness program some 4 years ago in which the penalty was up to $200 more per month additional for health insurance premiums.  We had 100% participation.  Most other wellness programs with a reward attached were considered successful with 30% participation.  Pain works in the right situations.

3. Autonomy.  Most of us want to decide for ourselves what we are going to do today.  Micro managers who dictate every “dot of an i and cross of a t”, in the long run actually diminish performance.  I can assure you that if I come in the house and tell my son to clean his room “right this instant”, I am not likely to have a great outcome.  But, if I say, “I’d like your room cleaned.  Can you get it done by 6PM when your grandparents arrive?” the outcome will likely be better.  Now my son understands the rationale and is given the latitude to decide when and how he will get it done.  Autonomy sparks performance.

4. Time Warp.  I get my best work done early in the morning after I have mediated, eaten and exercised.  My daughter gets her best work done in the afternoon and rarely is well rested.  My son is a night owl.  His peak performance could be from 8PM until 2 AM.  Here is the problem.  Many bosses, teachers and organizations want you to work a certain set of hours….or else! So what are we giving up in creativity and performance by shoe horning folks into certain hours.  Find your (or your employee’s) best time warp.

There is a time and place for all carrots, sticks and autonomy.  They all don’t work for all situations.   If you want to drive the best performance, you might want to try out a few of these ideas to see if you can move the needle on performance.