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My Work-From-Home Mistakes

“It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”
– Despair calendar quote

MistakesToday I am going to get some work done. I am because yesterday, to be honest, was not that productive. It started with the best intentions. Without a commute, I was at my computer by 7:30 a.m., earlier than my usual start time at the office. Pleased with my head start, I rewarded myself with a read through my news feeds.

I use a news aggregator to collect all my science, sports, local interest, photography and project management articles and announcements in one place. Most items I just scan in the aggregator platform, only clicking into the full articles for relevant or exciting topics.

Before I knew it, it is 8:40. Crap, there goes my early start…time to buckle down. Reading and replying to emails takes me to my first phone meeting. It is slow and lumbering, but mercifully finishes 10 minutes before the one hour allotted. I go and have a coffee with my wife.

The coffee was good, so was the toast and chocolate cookie. When I return, I have more emails, but I get through them and open up my “real” work. Having three monitors now is fantastic, but my new monitor has a higher resolution than the others so when I drag documents to it the text is too small. Maybe I should just set it to the same resolution as the other two? Thirty minutes later, I have all three monitors running updated video drivers at the same resolution and a fancy new screen saver that flows across all three monitors…sweet. But now my mouse is acting up.

It probably just needs a new battery. There should be one in this drawer. Wow, we need a good clear-out. None of this junk is used anymore; I am going to make a pile of things to keep and a pile of things to throw away. Hey look, an old digital camera…I wonder, what is on the memory card?

Wake up
That was an excerpt from my life five years ago when I first started working from home. It was ridiculous; I hardly got any work done. It was actually far worse than that because I had made the switch to work from home in part to live more simply. The idea was to spend more time with my family and enjoy the outdoors in the mountain town we had just moved to. So in addition to endless in-office distractions, I would also take two- to three-hour breaks to go trail running or mountain biking. As a result, I achieved almost nothing.

If you are struggling to get work done from home, do not feel bad. I am confident my procrastination, short attention span, and penchant for anything but work were as bad as it gets. Yet, now I am more productive than ever.

Last year I consulted at several organizations, taught training courses, wrote a book and 40 articles for ProjectManagement.com, developed courseware, presented at numerous conferences and—according to the GPS tracking website Strava—still managed to fit in 460 hours of mountain biking and running.

So, if you are having difficulty focusing while working from home, I think I can help. I know it is difficult with children to help home-school and more significant problems like a global pandemic, but what worked for me will likely work for you too, if you are ready to try it.

I was so frustrated at my lack of focus and inability to get work done that I treated researching the cause and solution as a project. I discovered my work hygiene was to blame. I created new habits, saw the results and now get my work done early. It was not comfortable, but better than the feeling I had of repeatedly achieving practically nothing all day.

Lose the distractions
Prolific writer Jon Morrow, tells us: “There is no such thing as focus. There is only an absence of distraction.” So, when we remove the distractions, there is nothing else to do but work. The trouble is that distractions come from many sources.

1. Close the door– I used to have an office off the kitchen. It was great for relaxed conversations, efficient for grabbing a quick coffee—also a nightmare for distractions. I moved my office downstairs and now close the door when I am working. The closed door means I am working. I do not want a coffee; I do not want to see a funny cat video. (I probably do, but I will not; instead, I am working.) Every hour I will come out, be friendly and chat, but when the door is closed, please no interruptions. It sounds harsh, but is nothing compared to what happens behind that closed door; things get much stricter.

2. Personal Pomodoro– When I do not have meetings, I work on a task for 45 minutes out of an hour. Then spend 15 minutes checking and responding to email, being social with the family, getting snacks and drinks, moving about, etc. For those 45 minutes, I eliminate rather than try to avoid distractions. So for me, this means no cellphone, no email, no internet, no music, no drinks, no snacks, nothing. Only the task and a countdown timer to tell me how much longer to work.

People with more self-control or better multi-tasking skills may not need to be so extreme, but I do. Fidget toys, squeezy balls, paper airplanes—anything that is more fun than a keyboard is banished.

The original Pomodoro technique uses a 25-minute mechanical timer. I tried that followed by a five-minute break two times per hour—but kept overrunning my five-minute breaks. So, I switched to 45 minutes focus, 15 minutes for interruptions and everything else. 

This ratio works for me, but something different might work better for you. The timing is less critical than being brutal and obsessive about the elimination of all distractions. After actually working for 45 minutes, I am happy to open my door, chat, mess about with my son, or whatever; now I am no longer anxious about underachieving. (I like the electronic Time Timer because it is quiet and the ticking of mechanical timers seemed enough to distract me too.)

3. Start Earlier– By going to bed earlier and getting up earlier, I gain an hour of quiet time in the mornings before everyone else gets up. I no longer waste it reading news feeds, I plan or complete an extra 45-minute work period while there are few distractions.

I check my calendar, plan when I will do my 45-minute chunks based around the meetings I have and readjust to do say a 20-minute session if I have only a 30-minute time slot.

4. Evolve– My original plan was to be very strict with the no distractions rule until I caught up on my backlog of work. Then I might reintroduce having my phone with me so that I could reply to text messages, or maybe the radio on, or a collaboration website open.

However, my productivity went up so much that I would hate to lose it again. Finally, I get to finish work earlier and get more free time. I just wish I’d discovered 30 years ago how easily I am distracted, how poorly I multi-task and the actual cost of task-switching. For me at least, they are significant.

Different Strokes for Different Folks
Your work-from-home situation is different from mine. Your schedule, personal distractions and options for isolation will be unique. However, I expect you can relate to some of the challenges I encountered when I started working from home five years ago. I hope some of the approaches I adopted to solve my productivity problems will help you, too.

 

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Announcing Supported Study Groups

PMI-ACP Mike Griffiths

I am piloting a new program for anyone wanting to study for and obtain their PMI-ACP credential.

It is a small group, 8-week online book-club / self-study program.

  • Read one chapter of my PMI-ACP Exam Prep book each week
  • Join me for a one-hour Zoom call to review topics and ask any questions you may have
  • Get access to a private LinkedIn group where you can ask additional questions and discuss topics with peers
  • Get exclusive chapter summaries, mindmaps, additional sample exam questions, and extra resources

At the end of the 8-week program, we will have covered all the material, and you should be ready to take the exam.

This new public program is a pilot. I am currently running a similar program for a group of agile coaches, and feedback so far has been excellent. To make sure everyone has an opportunity to ask questions, I will cap each group at 20-25 people.

I want to offer a more affordable option than online training for people who are willing to self-study. This option allows people to clarify topics with me and interact with others who are also preparing for their PMI-ACP exam.

Introductory price $99.

This price includes the weekly Q&A Zoom calls, LinkedIn support group, and exclusive resources (summaries, mindmaps, extra sample exam questions, etc)

If you would like to participate or learn more, please send me an email:  

Mike <at> LeadingAnswers.com

Logistics: I plan on running several groups concurrently with the weekly Zoom calls at different times, so we should be able to accommodate different time zones.


Reset, Refocus: 2 Concepts and 8 Tips for Making Progress During the Pandemic

Ideas to tryIt is a dilemma. We need to move forward. Not just to make progress on projects, but also to give people something else to focus on beyond the tragedy and fear filling the news.

At the same time, we need to be sensitive to how people have been impacted. We need to demonstrate support and empathy. We need to be available to listen and help wherever we can. We need to step up and be professionals.

Context
More than ever, context is king. How to respond and lead in your environment will depend on how your project and stakeholders have been impacted. There is no universal best response. All I can do is offer some tips for consideration. You can then decide if they apply—and how to implement them for your environment.

Concept 1: Demonstrate Empathy – Cut people some slack. Be there for them, listen and empathize with them. Maybe they have lost family members or are worried about elderly and at-risk family members. Perhaps their work-from-home environment is challenging with children needing help, poor internet service, and less-than-ideal work set-up.

So, provide some emotional support, and demonstrate empathy and active listening. Now is not the time to be a stickler on schedule or tasks. Now is the time to show compassion and build a stronger foundation of understanding and trust for future performance.

Concept 2: Take an economic view of decision-making – Social distancing and work-from-home policies have likely blown away your original project plans. We now need to determine what can be done and what should be done first. There will be some tasks that can still proceed, and some opportunity or threat responses than can be pursued…but how do we decide the sequence?

Taking an economic view of decision-making helps with sorting through the options. After reviewing what is possible, ask “Where is the next best dollar spent?” We can then start to prioritize work and match it to availability. The goal is to deliver as much value and make as much progress toward the desired business outcomes as possible.

So, if Activity A has a projected ROI of $15K, Activity B will save $18K in maintenance and Activity C has a 50% chance of returning $32K, prioritize them B, C, A. Share these ideas with the team; we need everyone to adapt and prioritize their time toward the high-value activities.

8 Tips for Reprioritizing

1. Check-in with your sponsors. Explain how you plan to continue working toward the intended business outcomes despite the changes. If appropriate, ask them if there are any new, higher-priority initiatives the team can be helping with. You do not want to be the project still making door handles when the rest of the organization has switched from building cars to ventilators.

2. Scan your WBS or backlog. Can any items of work be pulled forward and worked on remotely? Can some portions of future work be done now and remotely? Usually, we avoid partially completed work as it raises WIP, but these are extraordinary times. If it will need doing and can be done now, it might be the next-best-dollar-spent thing to do.

3. Revisit the vision and business case. Look for untapped opportunities and benefits. Perhaps there are objectives that were not immediately scheduled because they were a lower priority or required skills in short supply back then. Maybe we can find useful activities or different paths to the same goals that might now be viable?

4. Review the risks. Review the risk log to determine if any opportunities can be exploited, shared or enhanced at this time. Do the same with the threats and ask if any could be avoided, reduced or transferred by action that could be done remotely.

5. Communicate to your stakeholders what work can go ahead and what is not happening right now. Keep your communications short; stakeholders likely have plenty of extra work of their own that they are trying to get through. However, provide links to where they can find more information should they want it. So, short announcements and emails, with “more details” links so people can pull more information if necessary.

6. Put it to the team. Do not try and solve everything yourself. Your team members likely have some great ideas, too. Engaging them in finding ways to move forward recognizes their expertise and also demonstrates the desired behavior of asking for input and help.

Ask them what we can be working on. What are the highest value activities that they could be doing right now? Invite them to review the WBS/backlog and risk lists also. Ask about useful maintenance work and new product ideas. How can we use some extra thinking time to emerge stronger?

7. Contact suppliers, vendors and partners. Ask them how they are coping. Maybe there are some easy things we could do to help them. Or, an early heads-up on insolvency is better than learning about it when we need them for something.

Also, ask them for ideas. They likely know aspects of your project very well. Perhaps they can identify valuable work that could be done early. Check their suggestions for validity and self-interest bias. Ordering that flux capacitor jetpack might help them, but does it really help your project and organization right now?

8. Upskill. Use work-from-home time to gain new skills and undertake training. As a minimum, make sure everyone completes their compliance training, which includes working through all the mandatory health, safety and respectful workplace modules. That way, when people return to work, they will not be taking time out to complete these activities later. Then encourage professional development. What new skills, roles or tools would be helpful to learn?

These are challenging times. They are also opportunities to demonstrate desired behaviors. Being compassionate, helpful and understanding in times of stress and hardship are critical. So too is keeping a cool head, being flexible to change and open to help.

The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
― Albert Einstein

Thanks for reading, and please share other ideas for us to consider.

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]