April 13, 2019 admin

How to be focused and effective at work

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I recently started a new role at a games studio. This has meant I’ve had to get to grips with some strategies and systems for being focused and effective at work again.

The good news is that I’ve accumulated them over the last twenty years, so they are coming back to me quickly. But, I’ve also noticed some new ways to think about things. I wanted to get them all out of my head, in case others find them useful.

A couple of things before I start.

Most of my background is working in leadership roles, so there is a bias towards managing managers. That said, most of these are applicable, or can be adapted for any situation.

It might also seem like a pretty heavyweight system. But, once you get the hang of some of these, they can be done quite quickly. Before you know it, they become second nature. I have no doubt, the time investment is a no brainer.

So, let’s get started.

The Six Month Plan

There will always be far more things to do, than you’re able to do. So, you need a direction and a strategy, to help you prioritise.

It’s worth taking the time to think carefully about what you want to achieve over the next six months. I tend to set aside the first 30 days in a new role for just two things – learn, and put together a six month plan. Anything extra is a bonus. I encourage anyone I hire to do exactly the same.

Six months is a decent time frame to plan ahead for. It’s long enough for a number of things to be done, and to measure your impact. But, it’s not too long that everything might change halfway through.

I try and have only a handful of priorities. Usually, a couple of big things that have the potential to be transformative – or at least build significant momentum towards something transformative. And then a few things that will be impactful, but on less of a scale.

For each of these priorities, I try and have a clear idea of where I want to be in six months time. This means I can gauge if I’m making enough progress towards it.

When you write your plan, try not to slip into detailed planning. The six month plan is for high level thinking, and prioritising. It’s about setting a direction and being clear on your priorities. My plans usually fit on one page, and they never go over two pages. Keep things high level and simple.

Get some feedback from a few people whose judgement you trust. This can be your peers, or anyone else in or outside of the organization. You should also discuss and get full buy-in from whoever you report into. It doesn’t matter what your level – if you show you’ve thought carefully about what you want to achieve in the future, and can articulate that succinctly, you’ll stand out above everyone else.

My six month plan then becomes my guiding light, and it drives my weekly planning and priorities. If I make good progress on these items by the end of the week – it was a good week.

I review and update the six month plan every quarter. Again, set some time aside to think carefully about this. Priorities will sometimes change and new opportunities will open up. It’s important to stay on top of it and keep your priorities relevant.

Weekly Planning

Every Sunday, I spend a couple of hours planning for the week ahead. It’s without doubt the most important thing I do.

When I don’t do it, I’m reactive and don’t make enough progress on important (but not urgent) things. I usually finish the week in a bit of a spin, and find it hard to put my finger on how useful I was.

But, when I do it, I’m super focused and organised through the week. My priorities are obvious and I stay focused on the most important things. As you can expect, it usually feels good to look back on those weeks.

I like to do my weekly planning at the weekend. I make sure I’m in a quiet space and can’t be interrupted. I always feel great afterwards, and super prepared for the following week.

Weekly Planning – Calendar

The first thing I do as part of my weekly planning is look at the calendar. I want to get a sense of how the week is looking, before I start to plan out what I want to do.

It’s usually filled with a mix of recurring meetings (management, 121’s and project specific) and a few other adhoc meetings. It starts off about 3/4 full. If I jumped into the week like that, it would be a car crash. I would get more meeting requests throughout the week, and I wouldn’t get enough time to think or focus on anything.

My goal is to pair it back to at least 1/2 full – but preferably 1/3 full. I want to see plenty of white space. That way, I know that when (not if) I get more meeting requests, I will still get 25% to 50% free time to work on a project or think.

There’s nothing fancy about my process. I just look for meetings that I don’t need to be in. Or, meetings that I can get away with pushing back one or two weeks. If you want to create enough free space, you have to be ruthless about this.

I will also have a specific focus for some of the days. For example, Monday is usually full of management and 121 meetings. This helps me get everything pointed in the right direction at the beginning of the week. Tuesday is usually some 121 hangover and some free time. Wednesdays is pretty free for focused work. Thursday for project meetings. etc.

I’m a sucker for colour coding. Management meetings, 121’s, project based meetings, interviews, focus blocks, commuting time etc. They all have their own colour codings. That way I can glance at my calendar and work out what types of things are going on.

When I have 25% to 50% free space, I will drop a few focus blocks in. These are meeting placeholders with myself, that last 2-3 hours. I title them ‘FOCUS BLOCK’. This protects some of my free space.

And that’s it. I’m left with a set of the highest priority meetings, dedicated focus blocks and some white space. From there, I can start to think about the weekly plan…

Weekly Planning – The Weekly Plan

You can probably tell by now – I kinda like plans. I make a plan each week for my personal life, and work is no different.

The first thing I do is open a large moleskin notepad and write out four headings:

  • Big. This is for things that will help me make progress on my six month plan. Or, anything else big and important that needs to be worked on.
  • Small. This is for everything else – all of the many small things you have to do that week.
  • People. This is for thinking about how I can build and strengthen relationships. It could be a lunch with a direct report. Sending an email to check in with someone. Popping over and saying hi and asking how things are going with someone. Thinking about ‘People’ as a thing, makes it less likely that you’ll go too long without checking in with someone.
  • Communication. This is for anything you need to communicate – either to groups or individuals. When you think about ‘communication’ as a thing, you operate entirely differently. You can go from a bad communicator, to a great communicator overnight – just by thinking about it as a thing each week. And this is very powerful. Alot of problems usually stem from a lack of communication.

I start by reviewing my 6 month plan. I look at what I need to do to move each thing forward. I make a note of those things under the ‘big’ heading.

Then I look at my to do list (more on this later) and make a note of things I want to do under either the ‘big’ or ‘small’ headings.

The ‘People’ and ‘Communication’ headings are a bit more fluid. I don’t have a plan or a ‘to do’ list that I pull from. I will just have a think about what feels right to do in the week – and then put down some ideas for that.

Once I’m happy with everything, I transfer it over to a google doc called ‘Weekly Plan’. So, I end up with the same list, under the same four headings.

There are three other headings I have in the ‘Weekly Plan’ doc that sit beneath these four headings – ‘Next Week’, ‘To Do’ and ‘Later’.

The ‘Next Week’ and ‘Later’ headings become relevant as soon as I transfer everything to the ‘Weekly Plan’ doc. I almost always find that I’ve been too ambitious and have too many things in my Weekly Plan. So, I look again at my priorities, and start to think about things I can push to next week. If I can push it back even further, it goes under ‘Later’. I keep doing this until my Weekly plan is realistic.

There’s something nice about being able to take something off your plate for the week, knowing it’s captured for next week’s planning.

I then take one last look at the weekly plan. I try and envisage what it would feel like to be at the end of the week, having actually done it. If I feel it would move things forward nicely, and would be a good week, I’m happy.

The last heading is ‘To Do’. It remains empty for the time being. But, it’s super useful for when the week gets started. As you move through the week, all sorts of new things will pop up. If they have to be done this week, I drop them into the ‘To Do’ list. That way, they’re captured for when I do my daily planning. If I can get away with not doing them this week, I will drop them under the ‘Next Week’ or ‘Later’ headings to get them out of my head.

I often find myself sending out emails to people when I write my weekly plan. This is because the process triggers things you need to set up, or remind people of. I’m still not sure if this is a good idea, because it takes you out of the rhythm of weekly planning.

On balance, I think it’s worth doing, otherwise it’s easy to forget. Be careful not to get lost in your inbox though. Get straight back to the weekly plan afterwards.

Weekly Planning – ‘To Discuss’ list

I always have a bunch of 121 meetings each week – either with my boss or my direct reports. I keep a notepad file called ‘to Discuss’ on my desktop with the name of each person as a heading.

When and as I think of things that I need to discuss with people, I jot it down under the appropriate person. This is useful for a couple of reasons. It means I’m not annoying people every time I think of something. And, it feels great to detach myself of something when it pops in my head.

Throughout the week, my ‘to discuss’ lists grow. When it comes to my 121 meetings, I have a nice list of things I can rattle through. It’s a super efficient way of having productive 121 meetings.

The Daily Plan

Every morning, I block out some time to plan the day out. Usually, I get in early so I can make the most of the peace and quiet. When I can’t do that, I will do it the night before, or on the train commute.

When and how you do it isn’t that important. The point is, never start the day without a plan. It’s no different to not making time to plan out your week. You’ll just get dragged into a reactive day, and you won’t spend enough time on the right things.

My daily planning process is straightforward and similar to my weekly planning process.

I start by looking at the calendar. It’s usually in pretty good shape because of the work I’ve done in my weekly planning. If anything needs re-arranging, I’ll do it. From there, I have a good sense of what meetings I’ll be in, and how much free time I have to focus on other things.

Then, I open a large moleskin notepad that I dedicate for my ‘Daily Planning’. I make four familiar headings – ‘Big’, ‘Small’, ‘People’ and ‘Communication’. I simply look at those four headings in my Weekly Plan and I decide what I’m going to do today. I also look at the ‘To Do’ heading in my Weekly Plan and do the same.

I do a quick check on whether it feels realistic to do these things. Then, I transfer it over to a notepad file on my desktop called ‘Today’. At this point, I lose the four headings and just have one big list of things to do that day.

I then organise it into two lists – ‘AM’ and ‘PM’ (morning and afternoon). Each list is prioritised. So, if I fail to get to the bottom, at least I will have tackled the highest priority ones.

And this settles as my to do list for the day.

Lastly, beneath the ‘AM’ and ‘PM’ lists, I have a heading call ‘Done’. When I get things done, I will cut and paste it under the ‘Done’ heading. For anyone that does this, you’ll know it feels good to get this sense of completion.

Email

I could be better at email, but I’m also not too bad.

To start with, I make sure I’m on very few distribution lists. I’m very strict about this. I end up only being on a few (usually an allstaff and a couple of management ones). This means that my inbox isn’t bombarded with new emails.

I know this is tough for some people. At first it feels you might miss out on something important. But, I would encourage you to try it. What you’ll find is that you don’t miss out on anything. And the 1% of stuff that is urgent, will find another way to float up to you.

This means that I reach inbox zero at the end of each day. I cringe when I see people with thousands of unread email. My mind would feel cluttered if I had that type of inbox

The thing I’m the worst at is batching. Checking emails constantly throughout the day is almost the definition of unfocused. I want to get to the point where I’m able to check emails in the morning, at lunch and late afternoon. Three times a day, that would be perfect. At the moment, I check it ten or so times a day, which I feel is too much. Definitely something to work on…..

Phew….

And there we have it. That’s my full system for being organised. I hope some of it is useful and that you find a way to apply parts of it to what you do.

If you have any other strategies or tips for keeping on top of things, I’d love to hear from you.

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