Book Review: How To Do A Great Job And Go Home On Time (Fergus O’Connell)

This book would probably be a bit difficult to track down, because the publishing house is not so large and it’s in the UK. Certainly, I haven’t seen it for sale in too many bookstores. But if I could, I would make this book a compulsory read for everyone who works a white collar job. It’s that good.

Fergus O’Connell has a very simple idea: at work, we need to stop trying to be magicians and start trying to be a Duke of Wellington. A magician is someone who ¬†tries to pull rabbits out of hats. In other words, someone who says “yes” to everything and will kill themselves to deliver what they said. But a Duke of Wellington is someone whose word is dependable. If they say they’re going to do something, they do it.

This book doesn’t necessarily have a lot of time management techniques, though there are a few – but is most concerned with your mindset towards work. Because no matter how much you plan, you will continually sabotage your plans to get out of work on time if you are driven by things like: fear of what other people will think, guilt that you aren’t doing a proper job, a lack of self-esteem if you don’t say “yes” to everything.

So this book’s greatest strength is cutting right to the chase on why we tend to get workaholic and giving good tips on how to plan, how to get agreement with your managers on what you will do, how to say “no” – a very important chapter – and other things related to the psychology of trying to have a work/life balance.

I doubt there will be anything ground-breakingly new in this book, but if you work through it carefully and thoughtfully (and it is meant to be worked through, not just read) and you have the courage to implement Fergus’ suggestions (and it will take courage, believe me), this book just might change your life.

4 1/2 out of 5.

Further on Productivity: How I Let Pomodoros Into My Life and Almost Ruined My Productivity (But Then Got It Back Again)

Continuing on from the last post about productivity and timesheets, as promised, I wanted to talk a bit about the famous Pomodoro Technique.

I got put onto this while hunting around for timers to do my 15-minute timesheet program.

I’d never heard about the Pomodoro Technique – but it’s certainly novel enough, that I think it deserves to become as famous as GTD. You can find all about it for free, just by going to www.pomodorotechnique.com and downloading the free ebook, but I’ll give you the brief version here.

This system was designed by an Italian guy who had trouble focusing when he was in university. So he got himself a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato (“pomodoro” is Italian for tomato, thus the name) and used to see if he could concentrate till the timer went off.

Over the years, he eventually perfected it to a system that (in its simplest form) works like this:

1. You write a to-do list.

2. You start a timer for 25 minutes. During that time, you work on the top item on your list to the exclusion of anything else till the timer stops.

3. If you get distracted (either by you thinking of something or someone disturbing you), quickly write down whatever other task you have to do coming out of that down on your to-do list and keep working on your item.

4. When the timer goes, you must take a 3-5 minute break from what you’re doing. This is to clear your head and give you more energy. You’ve then completed one Pomodoro (or unit of time).

5. Every four Pomodoros, you can take a longer break (like 15 minutes).

This is pretty similar to my own system, except it has two advantages:

a) The built-in breaks are actually really good. You might not think so, but once you try it, by 25 minutes (as opposed to 15), you’re well and truly on a roll, and being told to wait 5 minutes actually makes you really keen to jump back into the next block of time. As long as you’re strict about keeping the break to five minutes, you’re not really going to lose much momentum, because that’s really only enough time to check a couple of emails, get a drink of water, go to the bathroom or something like that. If you actually knock over four of these things, you will have worked so solidly, that a 15 minute break will do you good.

b) The other advantage was that I wish I’d thought of the distractions notation. His simple system (which you can read about in the e-book) of noting down your distractions so that you can think about them later is brilliant. By far, the biggest distraction for me is that I’m mid-way through a job and I think of another one. By noting the job down (either urgent to be done that day or on a master job list to be done at some other time), you assure yourself that you are thinking about it, but you’re not going to work on it right now. After a little while of doing this, I discovered that most times I thought of jobs, it was mainly because I was procrastinating on the job I was doing, so now I find I don’t think of so many jobs to do in the middle of the one I’m working on now.

So those two aspects of the Pomodoro technique are great.

However, I decided to give the system a workout for a week instead of my usual timesheet system. I pretty much halved my productivity.

You know why?

I didn’t want to start the timer. I knew, after I’d written out the to-do list, that it’d be a bit of a nasty job, that first one, so I thought I’d just check one more email, or maybe get a cup of tea, or stop to talk to someone, etc. etc.

Once the Pomodoros were started, they were fine. But I could sometimes delay on starting the timer for a good couple of hours.

After trying to work out what went wrong, I have now adapted the system as follows:

 

1. Instead of my 15 minute intervals that I talked about in my last post, I now like to use Pomodoros (if I can) as a measure of time. If you count a Pomodoro as 25 mins work and 5 mins break, that gives you 30 minute blocks.

2. I now divide the day up into 30 minute breaks, plus a couple of 15 minute “tea breaks”. So a typical day might look something like this:

9am – 11am [Pomodoros 1-4]

11am – 11.15am [15 minute break]

11.15am – 12.45pm [Pomodoros 5-7]

12.45pm – 1.45pm [Lunch]

1.45pm – 3.45pm [Pomodoros 8-11]

3.45pm – 4.00pm [15 minute break]

4.00pm – 5.30pm [Pomodoros 12-14]

Now I’m not saying the day runs as smoothly as this – it rarely does. And obviously if you’re in a meeting, you just have to count how many Pomodoros roughly you’re spending during that time.

But the important thing with the above plan is it gives me a time when I need to start the timer. So at 9am, I start the first timer – while it’s ticking, I find the guilt of knowing that it’s running and I’m not doing anything inevitably makes me starting using that first one to work out my to-do list for the day and what’s most important. By the time I hit the end of the first one, take 5 minutes, it’s 9.30 and I straight away start the next one and jump in.

As long as I’m reasonably awake when I come into the office – and even often when I’m feeling tired – it really does work to get the day off to a good start.

So, yeah, I love the Pomodoros – I like the rhythm it gets you into – but I’d highly recommend starting your first Pomodoro at a set time on the clock, so you avoid pre-Pomodoro procrastination.

This is not quite the official system, because the guy who created the system believes that you start the timer when you start working. I believe start the timer, and you’ll more than likely start working.

After all, if the timer is running and you know that you can mark off that you did a solid half hour of work – and I think 25 mins of solid work plus 5 mins downtime is easily worth 30 mins of distractable work time where you’re checking emails, replying to everyone who talks to you, etc. – then you tend to not want to put down that you spent the entire time shuffling papers and doing nothing much. So you start working.

I also agree with what the Pomodoro guy (sorry, he does have a name – Francesco Cirillo) says at the end of his book – that if you stop using the timers, you lose your productivity. It’s a funny little quirk of nature, but unless you’re particularly driven to start with – in which case stopping every 25 minutes will probably irritate you no end – if you take away the timers, your productivity drops. The timers aren’t a tool to train you how to work productively – they’re what makes you work productively.

Maybe it looks a bit goofy to have numbers ticking down in the top right-hand corner of your screen when you’re working. Could be. But it’s a lot better going home knowing you did a solid day’s work. And could any worker ask for more satisfaction? I don’t think so.

Final link for the day is this timer which I found as a nice alternative to the AleJanJes Timer, albeit that it only works for the Pomodoro Technique. Called Focus Booster, this is another timer, that can be downsized to a small block that sits in your top right-hand corner (where I like to put my timers) and it’s set to count down 25 minutes, followed by 5 minutes. The only catch is that you have to remember to start it again as soon as the 5 minutes are up, but that’s not the worst thing in the world, and helpful for the longer breaks.

I have tried a couple of the Pomodoro apps on the iPhone, my favourite being Pomodoro Time Management (by rapidrabbit), which for some reason is no longer available in the Australian iTunes store. However, they don’t let you play music while you listen to them, and the problem with an iPhone app of course is that it doesn’t run if you use another application on the phone, making it annoying if you need to use something else on the phone while you’re using it (and it won’t even let you listen to music on the iPod while it’s running, which is particularly cruel . . .)

Anyway, whatever you use (and I’m aware not everybody is going to be as Draconian to themselves as I am), I hope you all manage to get to the stage where you can feel proud of how much work you do, and know that you’re being productive.

How I Became Ruthlessly Productive At Work (After Years Of Struggling With Procrastination & Distraction)

Every good blog has to have a time management article at some stage – this can be mine. Whether that makes it a good blog is up to you, gentle reader.

All right – time management.

I’ve always struggled with procrastination. It’s not quite as bad “My name is Matt and I’m an alcoholic” but I’m pretty sure “My name is Matt and I procrastinate on work” is not too far behind. I’ve done it as long as I can’t remember.

You know those people who like to burn through their homework so they can play outside? I’m the guy stuck inside doing it up to dinner time and beyond because I just can’t get myself to concentrate on my work . . .

I struggled with it through five years at my first full-time job, and I’ve struggled at my current one. I’ve tried different things.

I loved the Getting Things Done system. In fact, I read it in the week before I moved to Sydney to start my first full-time job. And it has certainly been a system I’ve come to rely on for how to get organised and keep your mind clear. However, for me, the GTD system didn’t help with the crucial problem I faced – procrastination.

See, by the time I’ve emptied my head, made all my lists, and done all that great GTD stuff, there’s the issue that that work has to be done. I read a variety of books that talked about different things like how to prioritise tasks, how to work out psychologically why you’re procrastinating (e.g. fear of failure). And I’d get some short-term changes out of these systems.

But for the most part, I’d keep falling off the wagon. And sometimes the advice you’d get from time management books would cancel each other out. Some books tell you that just actually doing the jobs that are there (rather than thinking about them) is a good way to go. Well, this is true, and there is something to be gained by just doing something now rather than endlessly scheduling it around. However, if you do everything that’s in front of you now, you’ll find that you answer a lot of emails, run a lot of errands for people who drop things on your desk – but the big picture jobs (most likely the ones you’re actually being paid to do) aren’t getting done.

I never knew how to get myself out of this dilemma. The other problem is, I’ve worked out that I’m a dreadful people-pleaser. It can be almost anyone in the company, but if they ask me to do something for them – whether it be shifting boxes or proofreading things or whatever – I’ll drop anything to help out.

And if I go to team meetings – aarggh!! – it gets even worse, because I’ll say “yes” to everything I’m asked to do, even if I’m not sure how on earth I can manage it all. Even though I inevitably get myself in trouble later on for not delivering everything I said I’d do, I still can’t help myself.

Oddly enough, it was this tendency of myself that led to an interesting breakthrough that I made.

The background was that at the beginning of this year, I had three roles at work. I was supposed to spend 2 1/2 days a week on one, and 1 1/2 days on the second and 1 day on the third.

On paper.

In reality, I’d just work on whichever one screamed the loudest. And I was having trouble doing any of them well.

And I was starting to get asked these questions, “How much time are you spending on each job area?” And you know what? I had no idea.

So I decided to start tracking my time. I know there are time management books out there that talk about doing a time log for a few days – some of you may even have tried that. However, that kind of thing is more about working out how many times you get phone calls during the day, how many times you distract yourself, etc.

But this time – what I wanted to do was actually track my time as if I was a consultant. So I signed up for a free internet-based timesheet called actiTIME. The main attraction with actiTIME was that it’s completely free if you just want a timesheet to log times into. (You can buy versions if you want to have more than 10 people using it and you want to access more complex management and accounting processes – but the free version suited me fine because I just wanted a sheet that I could log times in.)

The major tweak I made to it was that actiTIME comes with three main categories – Customers (it’s assuming you’re a contractor), then Projects which filter under Customers and then particular Tasks under that.

I changed Customers to Job Roles (one for each of my three roles) and kept the Projects and Tasks. (Actually, it was a nice feature that I could rename these levels to be in keeping with what I wanted.)

The other key that I decided to do was record my time in 15 minute increments, which seemed like a standard way of tracking these things. I’m not sure how contractors keep track of these things, or whether they guess at the end of the day, but I decided that I’d use a little countdown timer program that I had downloaded a long time ago (the sadly no-longer-available AleJanJes Timer, which I can’t link to because the page is no longer there). I’d set the timer for 15 minutes, and I’d run it pretty much every 1/4 of an hour (unless I wasn’t at my desk). I’d try to keep it as close I could to the hour, quarter past, half past and quarter to (e.g. 9.00, 9.15, 9.30, 9.45) so that it had a certain regularity to it.

Every time the Timer stopped, I’d flick over to my actiTIME sheet, which was sitting open in a browser on my computer all day.¬† I’d then add 15 minutes to the total of whatever task I was working on.

At this stage, I wasn’t attempting to prioritise my work or anything like that – and I still tended to work on whatever was screaming the loudest – but the idea was just to track it to give me an idea of what was taking up my time.

But what I didn’t expect was the amazing secondary benefit of this tracking – I finally discovered the anti-procrastination holy grail I’d been looking for!

Quite simply, knowing that every15 minutes I had to account for what I’d been doing made me work more solidly. Originally, this might have been because I had some thought that I was going to show the timesheet to my managers. That never eventuated – and I don’t think I’ll ever show anyone those reports – but after three weeks of tracking every 15 minutes, the habit was well and truly entrenched.

I’m not saying I didn’t waste time sometimes. There were times when I was tired, when I didn’t want to start a particular job. When I’d go make a cup of tea or coffee just to avoid starting the next time. (For the record, I’d count cups of tea as part of whatever job I was working on for 15 minutes, but if I had a real waste-of-time 15 minutes doing something like surfing the net or a long conversation with someone, I wouldn’t claim the time.) The idea was that I was trying to make sure I could account for all the 7 1/2 hours during the day that I’m paid for. And for the most part, I’ve been able to. There have been some days where I hit the end of the day and realise that I’ve only done about 7 hours work (despite the fact that I was in the office for a full day), but those days are becoming rarer.

I never would have picked it as being a winning system – running a timer and logging my work in a timesheet – but it has me able to do a full day’s worth of work, knowing that I didn’t spend a third or more of it mucking around and doing stuff I shouldn’t have been doing.

This system worked rather well for quite a while. Until I discovered the Pomodoro Technique, and decided to try that instead of my existing system.

That led to interesting results. . . and a new generation of time management for me. But I’ll save that for another blog.

In the meantime, I would challenge any of you die-hard procrastinators out there to give actiTIME a whirl, with a timer. (Hmm . . . maybe actiTIME could add a timer to the page?) Seeing as it’s no longer available, I thought I’d set the AleJanJes Time up on Media Fire for you to download. It was always intended to be freeware, so I don’t think I’m doing any wrong here. The guy who originally made it put it there so his kids wouldn’t fight over the computer.

I like this particular timer because it’s small and you can put it in the top right-hand corner of your screen where it will remind you quite obviously that your time is soon up. You right click on it to change the settings.

Have fun! I’ll talk more about Pomodoros another time.