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The Advice I Didn't Give

A friend contacted me today and promptly stated, “I want to ask your advice, and when I ask this question, don’t laugh at me.”

I had not realized I was known for laughing at my friends’ questions.

After I promised not to laugh at his question, he asked me,

Without sleeping less, how can I do more with my time?

What a zinger! And well phrased. He didn’t ask how could he get more time: none of us can, we each have 23.9344699 hours in a day, no more, no fewer. He didn’t offer to sacrifice one of the best activities you can do to keep healthy: sleep. He didn’t ask what could he do: he asked how could he do. I immediately jumped to the obvious suggestions:

Remove tasks that are busy-work

Don’t do anything that doesn’t contribute to your one year, three year, five year, ten year and lifetime goals. Unfortunately, I rather assumed he had considered his lifetime goals, and had a plan for those year breakouts. I charged forward, undeterred.

Delegate to a personal assistant

If someone else can do it and you have the means, pay someone else to do it.

I recall reading a story about a man who had moved to a country with a lower cost of living than his home country. In his new location, hiring staff to do household chores and upkeep was common. He was uncomfortable displaying his wealth in such a way, and refused to hire help, doing his own chores and laundry instead. His neighbours soon resented him and his stingy ways. Later, he realized that hiring local staff and paying a fair wage, meant he was contributing to the local economy and able to share his success.

I think of this story often, when I feel guilty for paying someone to complete a task I know I can do, should do. I gave the advice anyway: if you haven’t done the task yet, and still need it done, pay a fair wage and have someone else do it.

Commit to working quickly

Tasks fill up the time allotted, just as stuff will fill up the space allotted. Have an hour, and that tasks that should take you five minutes will take 59 minutes. There’s some quantum physics space time continuum thingy working against you on that one.

Set a clock for seventeen minutes (or whatever your favourite prime number is) and work on a task as fast as you can for those seventeen minutes, then stop and take a break. Those breaks are great.

I don’t know anyone who has failed to become more productive working quickly with this Pomodoro Technique. I also don’t know anyone who has managed to stick to it for more than a month.

Use the small bits of unused time in your day

Oh, boy, I was on a roll with my friend. I was sure I had added HOURS to his day with my suggestions. I was sure he was on the other side of the electrons nodding at all this gold-level advice I was giving him. How could he not be?

Be productive when you’re standing in line, walking to the train, or commuting. Use the small bits of the day that are lost because you don’t have under-ten-minute tasks that can be done on the move. Don’t play some game, I told him, use that time productively!

Schedule (and stick to) working out

Because after sleep, working out, moving, playing around at a park, physical movement is the best thing you can do for your own sanity and health.

Schedule relaxation time

If you’re going to cram your day full, give yourself some down time and allow your mind to just float, relax, and be. Schedule a massage, take a long shower, take two showers, meditate, doodle, anything to let your mind wander.

And then, I thought, here’s the diamond of all my advice. Here’s where the heavens open up with golden light and the trumpets sound.

Stop doing crap things

If a task doesn’t contribute to your well-being, stop doing it. Often times, that stopping is hard, impossibly hard. I might Miss Out On A Great Experience. Oh noes! I think, accompanied by some handwaving. If it doesn’t bring joy or lead to joy in your life, stop doing it.


And after all that great advice, I sat back feeling pretty smart about myself. I asked him, “So, how’d I do?”

He had recently become a manager, and commented, “I always knew leading was hard, but I didn’t fully understand the toll it takes until I became a manager. I mean, it’s 99% captain obvious level decision making, but the act of making decisions all day is exhausting.”

And I realized I hadn’t given him the advice he needed most.

Be gentle with yourself

You’ll make mistakes, trying to always make the right decision. You won’t get it right 100% of the time. Work will ask for more and more of you. Ask for help, tell them no, commit to nothing new, set expectations quickly when you have bad news, stop trying to do more with your time, and in it all, be gentle with yourself.

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One year ago

Few postmortems are truly productive.

A productive postmortem needs to be where you have the hard discussions. The ones that should encourage change. The ones where you talk about what needs to be better as much as you talk about how great it is.

I never understood why people felt the need to have a meeting to hash over a project, well after the project was done. By the time you get to this meeting, you have likely forgotten most of the pain points. And pain points are not always some big huge issue. They are the little things. Little things add up. Little things can make or break something. Little things are what gets forgotten long after they have happened, but they get added to an issue pile that grows and grows and then becomes impossible to discuss because it has lost all context and definition.

What renders a postmortem useless, is timing. Why wait for the end of a project to discuss problems and improvements?

End each week with a little postmortem. Talk about what went right. Talk about what went wrong. Talk about the challenges faced and how to address them differently – and not on the next project, but on this one. Apply your learnings now, rather than saving them up for a rainy day where you still have your rose coloured glasses on and pats on the back are handed out a dime a dozen.

It is not about making you better, as much as it is making the work better. If you do it after the fact, only one thing can benefit from improvement.

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