productivity

What Are Your Tentacles?

Octopus

Recently, I wrote about ‘Brules’. Brules are the rules you invent that stop you from doing what you really want.

Something else that can hold you back is what I call ‘tentacles’. Tentacles are the things that just make it harder to get the good stuff done. They suck onto you, causing heaps of friction, and they slow you right down.

Tentacles burn time, attention and energy. They’re things like:

  • The to-ing and fro-ing of emails, or endless phone tag
  • The effort it takes to arrange meetings with the five people you need to contact to get something signed off
  • The to-do list you create for yourself at the end of a meeting, to be done sometime in the future.
  • The meetings you feel you need to attend but add no value to you or others.

I started thinking about tentacles as I’d been doing a ‘Hell Yeah’ Audit,  and was noticing that some of the work I’ve said ‘yes’ to in the past has felt so effortless. And some other work (thankfully not much) felt like it could have been a lot easier. I reckon that’s because that work had some tentacles on it. Way too many planning meetings, phone calls and email to get to where we needed to get to. Lack of clarity. Unclear priorities. Lurchy, messy, slow, frustrating. Blah.

When I do my best work, it doesn’t have tentacles on it. And I bet it’s the same for you. For example, over the past few months, I’ve been running a series of coaching conversations workshops for a client. Yesterday the client gave me feedback that I was very low maintenance to deal with, and that things just seemed to be on rails. I put that down to being explicitly clear at the outset about how things were going to run, automating the things that made sense to be automated, and nailing clear roles and responsibilities. Admin was minimised, and we were all focused on delivering the outcomes we wanted in the most effective way possible.

It was a joy to do the work. I was playing to my strengths, my client was happy, and participants got what they came for (and more). Nice.

Tentacles arise because of the choices we make. The choices we make arise from the way we think. Tentacles love a fuzzy mindset.

If you’re not clear about what you want, the way you can best add value, and what your boundaries are, the tentacles will inevitably find a way to suck on.

How To ‘Detentacle-ise’

Existing Tentacles: the ones that you already have to deal with.

  1. Audit. Do a ‘Hell Yeah Audit’. For the commitments that don’t make the ‘Hell Yeah’ grade, go to the next step.
  2. Prune: Your job here is to get rid of the tentacles as effectively as you can. Categorise them:
    1. Do: Some you might just need to do now, and be done with them. Make it fast. Move on.
    2. Delegate: Some tentacles rightly live with someone else. Have the conversations you need to have to hand them over.
    3. Renegotiate: Some tentacles might have some flex in them around their urgency or level of detail required. Ask the question.
    4. Dump: Some tentacles just don’t need any attention. Dump them.

(If you recognise these ‘D’s, you’ll know they’re derived from Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done work).

Incoming Tentacles: the ones that will suck on to you at the next opportunity.

  1. Think about what sort of tentacles might ensnare you. Decide what your priorities, boundaries and offers will be. Know what you will say and do when they rear their head. Remember, ‘No’ is not enough.
  2. Be vigilant for tentacles. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll spot them a mile off and be ready when they try to latch on.
  3. When a tentacle arises, get on the front foot. Make it clear how you’ll play. Do it in service of effective outcomes, and you’ll usually find the other party will agree.

Earlier this week, I had a client ask to book a planning meeting for an upcoming workshop I’ll be running in a couple of months. Rather than try to find a clear time, I suggested we do it immediately following an earlier workshop I’m running with her next week, while we’re in the same room together. She agreed immediately – it was the obvious and easiest solution. No tentacles there!

Tentacles slide off with a healthy, assertive dose of priorities and boundaries. Get clear on yours and get rid of those tentacles!

 

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Write It Down

 

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One of my three notebooks.

 

Fresh ideas are powerful currency. New thinking can lead to renewed energy to tackle gnarly issues. Flashes of insight can spur new actions and new results. When you want to make change happen, your ideas are the starting point.

And, for most of us, life is super-busy. It flies by like your view from a rushing train. Ideas appear, and in the blink of an eye, they can quickly zoom out of view again, lost to us, as we fly ever onwards down the track.

The good thing is that we have this amazing technology available to us to help us capture those ideas as they emerge before they rush past and visit some other passenger further down the line. And that technology is cheap and easy to use. It’s called pen and paper.

If you write an idea down, the more likely you are able to do something with it.

There’s actually a bit of a debate about whether writing stuff down helps or not. Some research asserts that it helps us remember the important stuff. and it contributes strongly to our wellbeing. On the other hand, reaching as far back as Plato’s day, there’s a line of argument saying that note taking makes us lazy. I reckon it’s the wrong debate. Like all good practices, it’s about your intention behind the doing. Let’s look at that a bit more.

To my mind, there are two basic types of ‘writing down’. Taking notes, and creating ideas.

Taking notes (of a conversation, a lecture, or making a shopping list) is good for ‘storage’ purposes. It’s akin to taking a photo of an interesting slide you see at a conference, or grabbing an online article and adding it to Evernote. You’re grabbing the content, but you’re not really thinking too hard about it. You simply do it so you can retrieve it later. It gives your brain a break from having to remember everything and helps you stay organised.

The other purpose of writing down is to serve a creative process. Isaac Asimov said, “writing is simply thinking through my fingers.” The act of picking up a pen with the intention of “thinking through my fingers” forces your brain to work harder. You have to think about what you want to say or create. In that creative process, you bring into being something new.

My blogs are my creative ideas written down. I’ve had to think about what I want to say, and how I want to say it. The process of writing creates both the form and the substance of something new.

Leonardo Da Vinci is generally regarded as the epitome of what it means to be curious, and I suspect that was enhanced by his propensity to ‘write it down’. He carried a notebook with him everywhere and wrote down anything that moved him. For example, here’s one of one of his to-do lists that would put most of us to shame.

Here are a couple of ways I apply these ideas:

Notebooks: I carry three notebooks around with me: one for taking notes of client conversations, one for my daily to-do lists, and one for capturing and developing my own occasional flashes of brilliance and insight. I also have one in my car’s centre console, so when I’m listening to podcasts, I can write down ideas that grab me (when I’m stopped at the lights of course!) I’m always writing in some form or another.

Insights and Actions Log: In my workshops, I have participants use an ‘insights and actions’ log to capture relevant ideas as they arise. It’s simply an A4 piece of paper with a line drawn down the middle. The left-hand column is called ‘Insights’, and that’s for the ideas. The right-hand column is called ‘Actions’ and that’s for writing down what they are going to do with the ideas. Because an idea is more useful if you act on it in some way.

Ideas are everywhere. The trick is to capture them so you can use them.

Sound like a good idea? Great. Write it down.

 

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Find Your Rhythm

Are your days ‘lurchy’ or ‘flowy’?

For many of us, it’s more often the former, when we’d love it to be more of the latter.

Let’s get some definitions down:

‘Lurchy’ = you’re moving from one thing to another, feeling fragmented, scattered and often ending feeling unproductive and shattered.

‘Flowy’ = stuff feels effortless, you’re in sync, you can get deep into your work and nail it, it’s fun and energising. You’re not trying too hard.

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For most of my adult life, I’ve struggled with getting more into ‘flowy’ and staying there. More recently, I’ve learned a few tricks about how to do that. It’s all about finding your rhythm.

Finding your rhythm is like when you’re doing exercise, and you get that ‘click’ moment. When you’re walking, running, riding, in the gym, whatever. You hit a certain rhythm, a certain flow, where it feels ‘right’ for you, your performance lifts and it all becomes effortless. You know the feeling.

You can find your rhythm in how you structure your time, too.

Cal Newport wrote a powerful book called Deep Work, which argues that if you want to produce anything of value, you need to carve out uninterrupted time to do it. He builds on the ideas of Paul Graham, who wrote about two types of schedules: The Maker’s Schedule, and the Manager’s Schedule. They are both quite different: the first needs unstructured time to be effective, and the second is all about structuring your time. If you’re trying to do ‘Maker’ work (wrangling new ideas, writing, deep problem solving) you generally need big blocks of unstructured, focused time. And, we all need Manager time as well. That’s when you allocate your time into segments to hammer through your do-list, hold meetings etc.

I’ve learned:

  • I need to allow time for both types of activities if I’m going to be effective.
  • If I don’t deliberately carve out the Maker time, Manager time takes over. And I get into ‘lurchy’. And that’s frustrating.
  • It works for me to allow for Maker time across different time spans: daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually.

Here’s how I structure each of those time blocks with my Maker time:

Daily: first thing in the morning for at least an hour, I journal, scribble or listen to an interesting podcast.

Weekly: every Friday is a ‘client free day’ where I write, think, and create (including my blogs).

Monthly: I build in three to four concurrent days for ‘Making’ work every month, which is often when I design a new workshop or programme.

Quarterly: I take a week off from any sort of client work to decompress.

Annually: I take all of January off (holidays, yes, and also it’s also a great time for reflection, deep thinking and writing). And, of course, my annual two-week windsurfing trip in October, which keeps my edges sharp. You can learn more about my annual approach in my post Your Year By Design.

Does it always work perfectly? Rarely. Life gets in the way all the time! However, without a structure like this, I reckon I’d always be in Manager time, and I’d feel like I’d not be doing my best work, or producing anything of value. I stick to my structure about 80% of the time. As a result, I get into plenty of ‘flowy’ experiences, create good work, and feel good about how I’ve spent my time.

We all need to experience more ‘flowy’ times. Especially when we need to create new ways for our teams and organisations to be more agile, more innovative, and more bold. More lurchy meetings aren’t the answer.

Of course, I’m not suggesting you or your people follow my exact schedule. I am suggesting you think about what works for you across each of these time spans, and what’s possible for you given your current situation. And then take the first step, however small, to make it happen.

Go well.

 

Art: Tim Borgman

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