To manage a product, a team, or organization, you first need to know how to manage yourself, and that’s not easy to do. Even if your objectives are clear (a big if), it often feels like you’re within one cat gif, presidential tweet, or unnecessary meeting from being sucked into procrastination’s vortex. And then, that big project you were going to tackle…?
“It can wait until tomorrow.”
This year, what would it take to feel less reactive and more proactive? More in control, more deliberate, more effective? What would it take to avoid distraction and approach your work with the curiosity and creativity it deserves? Your career is made up of a discrete number of days. This year, how will you make every day count?
Below we’ll explore five steps you can take to drive better outcomes for your product, your customers, your organization, and your career.
We’ll start by exploring how to define your objectives and prioritize your daily efforts around them. Then we’ll discuss how you can process small tasks more efficiently, work smarter by applying core tenets of popular innovation methodologies to your own work, and then build the right habits to support all the above.
When we’re done, you’ll have all you need to make 2020 your best year yet.
Step 1: Define your objectives
At the start of a new year, it’s easy to launch straight into new and exciting projects or play catch-up on old tasks from Q4. Diving into previously-defined work feels great because it’s the clearest path to quick wins and gratification. But is doing so really the best way to support your customers, advance your organization, or further your career? Your time is valuable, so invest in your success and define clear objectives.
“If you’re not working on the right thing, no amount of productivity can make you effective.” – Hubert Palan, CEO @productboard
It’s true that objectives can be scary. They introduce the risk of failure and hold your feet to the fire where you might otherwise have been able to skirt by. But that added accountability and direction will provide the focus you’ll need to achieve miraculous things.
Your day-to-day will be more rewarding as well. In a two-year study on employee engagement cited in Measure What Matters, Deloitte found that no single factor has more impact on employee engagement than “clearly defined goals that are written down and shared freely.” Objectives create alignment, clarity, and job satisfaction.
So how do you get started?
Define your objectives
- Align most of your objectives with your organization’s top-level business objectives.
- Make your objectives exciting! Frame them in terms of outcomes (rather than the work you’ll do to get there) to make their value clear.
- For each objective, list the conditions or measurable outcomes that must be met if the objective is to be declared complete.
- Define at least one objective for personal/professional growth.
- Brainstorm/outline the projects you might pursue to achieve your objectives. Doing so will make your objectives feel more concrete, and that can help you refine them.
- Share your objectives with your manager, your colleagues, and even the rest of your organization for transparency, alignment, and accountability.
Product managers: You’ll also want to set objectives for your product!
Step 2: Prioritize your big rocks
There’s nothing more tragic than arriving back at the office armed with clear objectives and fresh resolutions only to be dragged right back into the cycle of reactivity, one Slack notification at a time. These are the urgent yet unimportant tasks that constantly flood our inboxes, feeds, and task lists.
How do we remain focused on our biggest objectives and avoid the endless cycle of reactivity?
In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey explains that if you fill a jar with sand, then pebbles, and finally rocks, the largest rocks won’t fit. But if you add the big rocks first instead, then sand and pebbles can fill in the gaps and everything fits.
Prioritize your big rocks.
On a daily basis, that means choosing one big thing that, if you got done, would advance one of your priorities and make the day a success. The authors of the new personal productivity book Make Time call this your daily highlight, and they offer some great tips on how this works in practice.
Achieve your daily highlight
- Carve out a 60-to-90-minute block of uninterrupted time to tackle your big rocks every day, ideally around the same time. For many this will be first thing in the morning before checking Slack/email, and before energy and willpower decline.
- Be cognizant of the sources of distraction that interrupt your deep work. Manage/uninstall addicting apps, escape from distracting settings, disable notifications, and put your devices on do-not-disturb. If something unrelated comes to mind, capture it on a post-it to get it off your mind without interrupting your flow.
- Reject any attempts to book time over your highlight: “Sorry but I’m already committed at that time.”
This last point is so vital, it’s worth exploring further…
Defend your priorities
I once had a colleague who was in high demand. As the sole business analyst at the company, he was a shared resource between a number of teams and had far more on his plate than any one person could handle. Yet for all the pressure on him, he was remarkably coolheaded. Whenever someone asked for his help on something – whether it was a colleague, a VP, or the CEO – he’d say…
“Just so you know, my biggest priorities right now are to finalize the board deck and the sales analytics dashboard, but I should be free to work on this toward the end of next week.”
Learning how to say “no” to others’ requests for your time takes courage to do, even when done with compassion. But it only gets easier. When others notice that you consistently define, plan, execute (and defend) your priorities, they’ll come to trust and respect you in a whole new way.
Use the formula below as a starting point:
“It sounds like this is < nice-to-have | important | critical > for you and the deadline is W.
My current priorities are X, Y, and Z but I expect to get to your request in <time_horizon>
It could be easier to set your own priorities when you have the stature of Warren Buffet, but there’s at least a kernel of truth in his saying, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
Additional tips for capturing the little things:
Limit your work in progress
If productivity can be bogged down by what we’re not currently working on, it can also decline when we try to take on too much at once.
In other words, multitasking is a myth.
Rather than diffuse your focus over many things at once, shine it like a spotlight on one thing at a time. Not only will you be more productive, but deep focus will enable more creative and inspired work.
It should be no surprise that this foundational principle behind Agile methodologies like Scrum and Kanban applies to personal task management as well. More on that to come!
Minimize context switching
Have you ever compared your energy level at 3 p.m. on a day when you focused on one intensive task to another when you tackled 20 small ones, interspersed with frequent breaks to check notifications, social media, stock tickers, and news headlines?
Like a CPU loading data to RAM, your brain expends energy each time it refocuses its attention on a new task or topic. That means less energy for accomplishing your most important work, as well as depleted willpower to avoid procrastination.
Tips for avoiding brain-taxing activities:
- Review your notification settings.
- Set devices to do not disturb.
- Agree on cues with colleagues to signal when you’re focused on work and unavailable for a chat (big headphones tend to work).
- Remove addicting apps off your phone’s home screen, or delete them altogether. (You can always download them again in a matter of seconds!)
Handle incoming to-dos efficiently
It’s tempting to triage the incoming tasks/messages/emails you receive before circling back to take action, but reading everything twice doubles the work. Instead, conserve your energy for the big rocks by acting swiftly and decisively when handling small tasks. Some call this the OHIO rule: Only Handle It Once.
- For each task/message/email: Decide whether to take action immediately, delegate it to someone else, or add it to your task backlog to be prioritized and handled later.
Step 4: Work smarter
Design Sprints… IDEO’s Design Thinking… Human Centered Design… The Lean Startup… Agile and Scrum…
What do all the most popular methodologies in recent years have in common?
They all address our most counterproductive tendencies:
- Lone genius fallacy — The pressure we feel to be the expert, and our pride in having all the right answers. It leads us to avoid seeking critical inputs from others, or leaves us feeling stuck.
- Perfectionism — The lure of optimizing what we’ve already done, rather than getting feedback to verify we’re even working on the right thing.
- Spotlight thinking — The tendency to become fixated on pursuing a single idea rather than first zooming out to land on a far better one.
- Fear of the unknown — The struggle to figure out where to begin when embarking on a new project. A leading cause of procrastination.
- Analysis paralysis — The tendency to get blocked when confronted by too many options or too much data. It’s often why projects stall.
Even in our personal projects, common themes from popular methodologies can help guide the way.
You don’t have all the answers
And you don’t need to! Isn’t that liberating?
In his writings that inspired the Lean Startup movement, Steve Blank pegs the billions of dollars lost (by individual startups!) during the dot-com bubble on poor assumptions around customer needs, made by smart people who thought they had — and had to have — all the answers.
You can avoid the same mistake in your own work by doing what top entrepreneurs and product managers do: Get out of the building.
- Validate your ideas with stakeholders, collect early feedback, and ensure you’ve set the right objectives and are addressing them in the best way.
- Seek input from colleagues, mentors, or your peers in professional Slack communities. Take the network approach to problem-solving.
“When you’re stuck with a tough decision or a problem you don’t understand, talk to all the smart people you know.”
— Tom Kelley, IDEO
More ideas for seeking input early and often:
- Are you responsible for championing the voice of the customer in your organization? Set up check-ins with at least one customer a week and use part of the time to get feedback on something you’re working on.
- Have a work presentation coming up? Run an early draft by a member of your audience.
- Working on a challenging assignment? Seek input from a colleague with a different perspective or from a different field. They’ll be flattered you asked!
Lean, Agile, and Design Thinking emphasize turning outward for answers, forming cross-functional teams to solve “wicked” problems (that lie outside the purview of any one field), and daily standup meetings where challenges can be surfaced and discussed. Don’t forget to leverage the strengths of those around you. And breathe, because you’re not alone.
Get ideas out of your head
We’ve already discussed unburdening your mind of to-dos. The same applies to ideas. It’s why creative agencies like IDEO kick off new projects with brainstorming exercises that plaster the walls with post-it notes. Visualizing ideas out in the open is key to identifying patterns and synthesizing information.
Whiteboards can work wonders too!
“We’ve found that magic happens when we use big whiteboards to solve problems… As humans, our short-term memory is not all that good, but our spatial memory is awesome. A sprint room, plastered with notes, diagrams, printouts, and more, takes advantage of that spatial memory. The room itself becomes a sort of shared brain for the team… Whiteboards make you smarter.”
from Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days
So remember to capture ideas visually, and diverge to consider more ideas before you converge on the single best one.
Just get started
Brainstorming, stakeholder interviews, and background research can help chart the territory when starting a new project. But researching the status quo can be limiting when you’re setting out to do something brand new, and it’s well agreed that traditional approaches to management overemphasize upfront planning.
Since planning amidst uncertainty can be daunting, if not misleading (if you commit to a plan that’s sure to change), what if you just dove right into the deep end?
Tips for adopting a bias toward action:
- Timebox upfront research and planning. Instill a sense of urgency for subsequent tasks by working in time-constrained “sprints”, as short as 10-, 30-, or 90-minute blocks depending on the activity. (Highly visual timer can help here.)
- Embrace constraints or introduce them by setting rules to focus your efforts (e.g. Interviewing 20 customers could get me more data, but I’ll limit myself to five.)
- Learn by doing and fail fast by creating minimum viable products (MVPs) for any new or risky project. Whether you’re writing a blog post or product specification, designing an internal training, or developing a new product, start by completing the simplest possible deliverable that you can share with others to validate you’re on the right track, then iterate and repeat. This could take the form of an outline, a draft, a mockup, a storyboard, a paper prototype, or even a role-playing exercise or skit (if you’re working on designing a service or experience).
Adopting a bias toward action accelerates learning, reduces wasted effort, dissipates fear of the unknown, and builds momentum that drives decisive decision-making. Just pick a direction and go! It’s expected that you’ll course-correct along the way.
Build-Measure-Learn. It’s a cycle of continuous improvement!
And that leads us to our final step…
Step 5: Make it a habit
Ask someone to list their top ten tips for being effective in the workplace. Then follow them around for a week. How many do you think they’d actually use?
If there’s a gaping disconnect, it’s because staying effective requires regular maintenance. You’ll need to perform certain meta-tasks or the whole system falls apart.
On a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual basis:
- Evaluate how well you met previous objectives and define new ones for the coming cycle. (Like a swimmer in open water, poking your head up to see how far you’ve come while ensuring you’re still headed in the right direction.)
- Reflect on how you’re actually spending your time. (If significant time was spent on work not related to stated objectives, is it because an important objective went undefined? Or do you need to get better at delegating work or defending your priorities? Or was daily productivity impacted by distractions?)
- Clear out completed, redundant, or outdated projects/tasks to keep your personal backlog manageable and organized. (It’s the only way it will remain your single source of truth, so you don’t revert to juggling to-dos in your head.)
While your daily reflection, planning, and maintenance session might look a bit different from your annual one, they’re still fundamentally the same activities.
Plan and reflect at regular intervals
Carrying out personal planning sessions and retrospectives on a regular basis takes an investment to be sure, but with the help of some apps you probably already use, you can minimize the overhead.
- Bake these sessions right into your schedule by adding recurring events to calendar apps.
- If your schedule is packed and unpredictable, use recurring tasks/reminders to prompt you to perform regular maintenance activities.
- Add habits to a habit-tracking app like Habitify to be reminded of rituals you’d like to perform at certain times throughout the day. (See also: Momentum and Done)
Even standard iOS/OSX apps like Calendar and Reminders support custom intervals for recurring events/reminders: e.g. last weekday of each month.)
Set notifications for all of the above as you see fit.
Think big. Start small.
Here’s a final tip. The 80/20 rule says the majority of outcomes result from a small number of inputs with a disproportionate impact…
- What’s one thing that could make a difference for you this year?
- What’s the next step you’ll need to take to get started?
How will you make 2020 count?
Share your #1 goal in the comments and tell us what steps you live by!
The books below are the kind you’ll want to read and reread for years to come. The first in each section is especially highly recommended.
Define your objectives
- Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs (John Doerr)
- Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with OKRs: (Christina Wodtke)
- Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (Jim Collins)
Prioritize your big rocks
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (Stephen Covey)
- Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day (Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky)
- The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results (Gary Keller)
- The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (Kelly McGonigal)
Process your small tasks efficiently
- Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (David Allen)
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (Greg McKeown)
- Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (John Medina)
- The Lean Startup (Eric Ries)
- Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, And Sharpen Your Mind (Jocelyn K. Glei, 99u)
- Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems And Test New Idea in Just Five Days (Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz)
- Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice The Work In Half The Time (Jeff Sutherland, Co-Founder of Scrum)