Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Crazy To-Do List? Here’s What To Tackle First

Unfortunately, your to-do lists won't be down to zero until the day you die. So if you've been thinking that you'll only reach productivity nirvana when your lists are empty and your calendar is an open canvas, well, that's not likely to happen—at least as long as you have a job, a family, friends, and a life to manage.

If you're like most people, you have pretty chunky lists of things to do, along with a near-constant flood of new to-dos and an overwhelming feeling that it all needs to be done now.

Many people try to tackle their mountain of personal tasks by sorting them by priority, and starting at the top. Seems logical—but they've actually got it backward. In reality, before you think about priorities, there are three factors you need to consider, because they each actually limit your choices about what you should (and even can) do next.

So if you're feeling overwhelmed, and aren't sure where to start—set your "top priority" lists aside, consider these three factors, and make use of them to help you sort your excess of options into a more manageable set of choices.

Limitation #1: Context

If you're not in the right place, don't have the right tool, or are not in front of the right person required to take an action, you can't take that action. Think about it—ever been at work, in a meeting, and suddenly remember you need to buy shampoo? Unless you leave that meeting, "buy shampoo" isn't happening in that moment. It belongs on a list called "Errands" for when you're out and about. (Unless you're like my husband who thinks the life of shampoo can be extended eternally by shooting water into it and diluting it down when it's near empty.)

Context will always be your first limitation. You can certainly change your context, to get to the right place, tool, or person to take the action that just came to mind. But unless you do, your choices are limited by that factor first.

David Allen's Getting Things Done method suggests that you primarily sort your to-do list by context, such as @Computer, @Home, @Errands. This saves time by preventing you from slogging through choices you can't even make—because you are not in the right context.

Limitation #2: Time Available

The second factor that comes into play is how much time you have. If you've got a big project to work on, but you need to bounce to your next meeting or pick up your kids in 10 minutes, it's probably not a good use of your effort to start it. It might take you that long just to get into the rhythm of it before you have to unhook.

So when time is a factor, look for choices that match your time available. Maybe in those 10 minutes, the best thing isn't for you to go check your inbox and half-read a bunch of emails that you'll have to re-read anyway. Maybe instead, you'll benefit more from going outside and breathing some fresh air, or making that quick call where you know you'll get someone's voicemail.

Limitation #3: Resources

The third factor to consider is what your energy is like. I don't know about you, but Friday afternoon after a long, busy workweek is not the time to dive into anything that will take a lot of mental bandwidth. Instead, I make choices that match what my mental and physical energy is like. Not to say there aren't times I need to just "buck up" and get in there anyway, but I like to be conscious about what I'm choosing and match that to when I think I'll bring my best self, whenever I can.

Pulling in Priorities

We said at the beginning to set aside "priority"—but now, here's where it comes back. While context, time availability, and resources will limit your choices about which to-dos you should tackle next, they still aren't usually enough to help you decide which will bring you the most value. This is where priority shines—it becomes your strategy.

If you're thinking that to decide based on priority means you need to have your life and work "all figured out," I'll make it easier for you. You just need to know what you've committed to—completely. First, capture into lists everything you've made an agreement, would, could, or should about, personally and professionally, so that you trust you're making a decision against the full inventory of what you've committed to.

Then, ask these two simple priority questions:

  • What's the value in getting it done?
  • What's the risk if I don't?

Often, you'll realize that half of the projects and tasks you took on can't realistically get done in the time you have, nor is there value in taking them on now, or little risk to parking them out in the future. These kinds of things go on a "Someday Maybe" list for me. I haven't given up on the idea—I'm just saying, "not now."

Try asking those two questions on the next email you get that asks you to do something. Or the next book you tell yourself you should read. Or the next meeting you're asked to attend. It might just help you wade through your choices with more ease of mind, knowing you can only do so much, and that you're making the best choices you can.

Thanks to Kelly Forrister / TheDailyMuse / The Daily Muse


How To Manage Your Team Through Change Or Crisis

We've all seen it happen: Closed-door meetings. Executives walking around with clenched jaws. Team of two or three whispering among themselves about what might be going on.

When your company is going through a time of crisis, turmoil, or even just change—the uncertainty and gossip that ensues can derail productivity, torpedo motivation, and bring down morale at all levels. But as a manager, it's your job to keep your team happy and performing at their best. So, when the you-know-what is hitting the fan all around you, how can you keep calm and carry on?

No matter what's going on—whether it's a good change, bad news, or something totally unknown—here's how to address the chaos with your team, keep the gossip at bay, and get everyone back to work.

Crisis Level 1: A Change is Happening

Even if what's happening isn't a bad thing—say, your company is acquiring a smaller competitor or getting a new CEO—any sort of change tends to breed uncertainty, fear, and low morale. So, the best thing you can do in this case is to proactively discuss the situation with your team (at least, as much as you're permitted to), sharing all you know about what's happening.

More importantly, remain positive about it. For example, if your company is considering expanding into a new market, give positive support to that decision, or, if you have historical data or studies that show that it's worked for similar companies, share them. If a new CEO has come on board, don't focus on the organizational changes you're bound to face—instead share information about this person's stellar track record at other companies and what he or she might do for yours.

If you, the manager, stay positive and provide compelling reasons to get on board with the changes, it will be much harder for your employees to spread a negative attitude throughout the organization.

Crisis Level 2: The Unknown is Happening

Something major is happening—you just don't know what it is yet. (Or, you do know what it is—you just don't have all the details.)

In this case, remember that rumors start swirling when people are aware that something's going on, but no one addresses the issue head-on. So, to thwart the gossip, it's important to be upfront and discuss what you know with your team.

Even if you don't have all the details, that's OK. Try something like, "I know you may have been hearing rumors about a potential round of layoffs. I don't have a lot of information about what's going on, but I can tell you that sales have been down for three quarters straight, and the executive team is trying to figure out the Q4 budget." Or, if you are able to reassure your team about any negative news, do so.

Also, give them an anticipated timeline as to when more information will be public—or when you plan to update them again. By giving your staff some true facts, reassurance, and a timeframe for more open discussion, you mitigate the need to gossip for information. (And in the meantime, you can request that team members stop discussing the news until the public announcement and to come to you with any specific questions.)

You may also want to share your employees' concerns with your boss, let him or her know that rumors are flying, and suggest that upper management address these issues with the entire company (where appropriate). Even if the higher-ups can't give specific answers to every question, an open-door policy that goes beyond you will increase trust within the company as a whole.

Crisis Level 3: The Worst is Happening

Sometimes, you do know what's going on. Sometimes, the news really is that bad. And in these situations, pretty similar advice applies. When you know that a huge change is coming down the pipeline, particularly a negative one, you should be as open as possible about it with your staff. Even if the news is bad, it's usually better for those details to come from you, rather than through the office grapevine (and ideally, sooner rather than later).

I personally experienced the effects of negative company-wide news when I worked at a start-up as a fresh college graduate. For months, it seemed like things weren't going well. All of us were speculating about the company shutting down, which led to a total lack of engagement on our part. We were showing up late, slacking off, and trying to search for another job on the sly.

Finally, our manager came to us and candidly told us that yes, the company was shutting down. He gave us a 30-day notice, offered a strong reference on behalf of himself and the owner, and allowed us to use the office to send out resumes and hunt for a new job.

This is an extreme example, but the point is: Even though he had to confirm negative news, it was much better for us to know what was happening than to continue to speculate about it. Plus, we were much more motivated to get back to work and to wrap up outstanding projects during the remainder of our time there once we knew what was going on.

Managing in a time of change or crisis can be difficult, but it's important to address uncertainty and negativity as quickly, concisely, and truthfully as possible. By encouraging transparency among your team and throughout the organization, you can minimize the impact the situation has on your work.

Thanks to Ashley Faus / TheDailyMuse / The Daily Muse


3 Tips For Managing Employees During A Personal Crisis

As a manager, there are few things anyone can guarantee as part of your job description. But there's one thing I can pretty much promise: Whether you have one or 100 employees under your supervision, you'll eventually have to deal with someone having a personal crisis in the office.

At first glance, helping your employees through a difficult personal issue may seem simple. Be sympathetic and supportive, and make sure they know you're there for them, right? Actually, there's much more to it than that. And, as my experiences have shown me, if not handled properly, what started out as a personal crisis could morph into one of a professional nature.

Here are a few tips to help you guide your employee through a difficult personal issue while maintaining a professional relationship and helping everyone get the job done.

Tip #1: Remember You're the Boss, Not the Friend

I know this sounds harsh—and believe me, it's probably the hardest part of dealing with an employee in crisis. But, if you blur the line between manager and friend, you could find yourself in a much more difficult situation down the road.

4 Simple Ways To Make Your Employees Feel Valued

Imagine a job where your work isn't appreciated, your effort goes unnoticed, and you could be replaced in an instant.

Not exactly a place you'd want to stay for very long, is it?

As a manager, this isn't the type of environment you want to encourage—not if you want your employees to stick around, that is. So, one of your most important responsibilities is making your employees feel truly valued, letting them know that without them, your company, your department—and frankly, you—would be worse off.

But how do you do that on a daily basis, especially if you don't have the decision-making power or resources of a top-level executive? During my years as a manager, I've found that doing these four simple things can go a long way.

1. Be Intentional with Everyday Conversations

Employees and managers alike are often ingrained with the idea that "everyone is replaceable." But I've found that a big part of feeling valued occurs when employees are aware that they add something to the company that no one else can.

To effectively convey this, think about how you approach everyday conversations with your employees. When you assign a new task, for example, go beyond the basic "Here's the contact info for your next design client," and reiterate why you truly value someone's work: "You did a great job designing that website last week. We have a new client who seems pretty picky, and since your work is so detail-oriented, I think you're the only one for the job."

Or, as you start giving people more challenging work, clearly acknowledge what you're doing and why: "You really nailed your presentation during the team meeting last week, so I think you can handle a monthly client presentation with some of our big accounts." The more you recognize your employees' specific contributions to the team, the more irreplaceable they'll feel.

2. Show Them that Others Need Them, Too

While recognition can serve as a great motivator, it can also become a little routine when it always comes from a direct manager.

I'm not saying that you should ever hesitate to reward your employees for a job well done, of course. But, do remember that feedback from others can pack a little more punch—and show your team that they're not only appreciated by you, but also by clients, co-workers, and even executives.

So, pay attention when a client sends you an email to share the amazing experience she had with an employee or when someone from another department lets you know "Joy helped me find the number I need—she's great!" Then, share it. Whether you do it privately (via a one-on-one conversation or email) or in public (on a company message board or during a team meeting), you'll let your employees know that they're making an impact on clients and co-workers—and they'll be reminded just how important their work is.

3. Challenge Them

Every job comes with less-than-glamorous responsibilities. But it's important to balance out that grunt work with challenging assignments, too. When you only dole out repetitive tasks (or tasks beneath someone's skill level), you're conveying that you don't really need his or her specific, individual talents. (Come on, anyone could update a client information spreadsheet!)

On the other hand, when you assign an employee a challenging task and actually put your trust in him or her to see it through, what you're saying is, "I know you're capable of this, and I trust you to do a great job."

So, I've found that it's important to consistently find new ways to challenge my employees—whether that means developing new projects specifically for their talents or just being more aware of what each person does best and assigning tasks accordingly. I also carefully select employees for the task of training new hires—giving people this responsibility conveys that you not only think they're doing a good job in their everyday work, but that you want incoming employees to develop their same habits, skills, and attitude.

4. Recognize Them as Individuals

To boost team morale, it's great to do something for your entire team—like catering lunch or bringing in donuts. But if you're aiming to show your appreciation for an individual, it can easily get lost in these types of group celebrations. In one fell swoop, your top salesperson and newbie intern have just been rewarded with the same exact thing: a slice of pizza. Guess how valued your top employee is going to feel?

To truly make individual employees feel valued, it's OK to single them out and reward them according to their accomplishments—and with something that the rest of the team won't necessarily get. So, for example, if an employee's gone above and beyond developing an internship program for the summer, let him or her skip out on a day of work to attend a recruiting event at a nearby college. Or, pinpoint an employee to attend a conference on your behalf. I've found that even simple, small gestures go a long way: If I have an employee who's done something exceptional during the week, I'll pull her to the side and let her leave work an hour or two early on a Friday afternoon.

Of course, you don't want to ostracise the rest of your team—and you certainly don't want to play favorites—so, it's important to pay attention and actively look for opportunities to reward all the members of your team. But individually recognizing your employees for their specific achievements will spell it out, loud and clear: They really make a difference to you and the company.

Thanks to Avery Augustine / TheDailyMuse / The Daily Muse


Tears And Fears: Dealing With A Crying Colleague

Unless you're on the set of Days of Our Lives, crying is generally something we all try to avoid at work. But, try as we might, it happens, and when it does, it's pretty awkward—not only for the crier, but for everyone nearby.

As a manager, I was faced with the uncomfortable responsibility of calming a crying employee on several occasions, and while never would be too soon for me to want to do it again, I did pick up some valuable insight on handling an upset employee or colleague.

The Golden Rule

Now, as uncomfortable as you might be, the first and most important consideration when you're staring into the welling eyes of a colleague is empathy. I know, sounds obvious. But the first time one of my employees started to cry in front of me—and the entire team—my first reaction was nearly laughter. I was so surprised, not to mention completely unprepared to handle the situation, that all I could think to do was burst out laughing.

Of course, this would've been the absolute worst thing to do, and thankfully, I was able to compose myself by remembering what it felt like the last time I was caught crying. It's hard to know how any one of us will react when put in this awkward position, but remember the golden rule, and start thinking about how you'd want to be treated if the tables were turned. I guarantee being laughed at won't be involved.

Change the Scenery

Having an employee cry in front of the whole team isn't good for the group, and obviously, isn't good for the employee. So, at the first sign of trouble, it's a great idea to guide that person to a more private area. A spare office or conference room works great, but avoid the bathroom at all costs if you plan on having any sort of discussion with your employee. It's fine if she needs to compose herself, but save the talking for a more professional atmosphere that doesn't involve an echo and running water.

The change of scenery approach works even if you're already in a secluded place. I had the unfortunate duty of firing one of my employees several years ago, and when I gave him the bad news, he burst into tears. We were already about as far away from the rest of the team as we could get, so moving to a new room wasn't an option. So, instead, I grabbed some tissue, and asked him to stand up and walk over to the window with me so we could decompress a bit, hoping the movement would help calm his nerves. It worked, and I've used it every time I've encountered this since. Even if it means just turning your chairs around, the change in scenery can help change the emotional context just long enough for your employee to catch his or her breath, and hopefully, will keep the waterworks to a minimum.

Talk Through the Tears

As awkward as it may be—and trust me, it will be—sometimes the best thing to do for a crying colleague is just let her get it out of her system. Turns out, trying to put a lid on whatever emotions triggered the crying in the first place might just make it worse.

My first solo experience with a crying employee came not long after I started as her manager, and I was pretty focused on establishing myself as an authoritative figure. While I certainly wanted to make her feel better, professionally, it felt awkward to have a good old-fashioned chat to find out what was wrong. So, I pulled her into the hallway and gently asked her to take a few minutes to compose herself in a nearby conference room.

Turns out, that was the exact wrong thing to do. She completely fell apart right there in the hallway, and started crying uncontrollably. Horrified (for both of us), I took her to the conference room myself, and sat down with her and let my instincts take over. I asked her what was wrong, and amazingly, that's all it took for her to collect herself.

While the simple act of talking can help calm emotions, it also helps create a bond with your colleague. Although I never did get used to someone crying in the office, this particular employee felt comfortable enough to pull me aside in the future, to chat (and cry) things out away from the group, which made life a lot easier for both of us.

Business As Usual

Last but not least, there's the business of how to react once the tears have dried. Depending on the situation, your employee may be ready to return to his or her desk after regaining composure, and the rest of your team may be a little unsure of how to proceed. After all, while you and your colleague were away, your team was likely coming up with all sorts of conclusions as to what prompted the crying in the first place. Was someone fired? Did someone die? No doubt, inquiring minds will want to know.

Unfortunately for the curious ones, it's none of their business, and unless your employee specifically gives you permission to discuss something with the group, he or she needs to know what was shared with you stays that way. Which means, you need to get the team back to business.

In my experience, doing a quick walk-through, asking for status updates on everyone's projects, and reminding them of upcoming deadlines is a surefire way to get the team back on track. If necessary, find a way to hang around close by all day—nothing fizzles gossip like a manager on the floor.

We all cry for different reasons, so it makes sense that, regrettable as it may be, eventually it's going to happen in the office. So, if it happens to someone on your team, remember we're all human, and do your best to help both of you save a little face (and a few tears in the process).

Thanks to Jennifer Winter / TheDailyMuse / The Daily Muse

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