David Parmenter’s 10 smarter work habits in a post COVID 19 world:

  1. Controlling the wild beast — your email
  2. Eat a frog every morning
  3. Have a Blue Sky Friday every week 
  4. Have a cluster of mentors
  5. Ways to save time in meetings
  6. 15 Second Rule for Short Term “To Do” Actions
  7. Move to a Stand-Up Desk with Three Screens
  8. Never move a meeting because you are busy
  9. Have a Meditation Walk During the Day
  10. Become a finisher

An extract from his working guide: Don’t Say That I Didn’t Tell You: Advice from a father to his 20-something-daughters

1. Controlling the wild beast — your email

Your email may be eating into your productivity. Here are some Golden Rules when managing your emails.

In any working week many of us are spending up to 20% of our time reviewing and processing emails.  In many cases workflow is simply being pushed around the organisation for no tangible gain.

Here are some rules to save you time.

Rule 1: Never open emails before 10:30 a.m.

In the good old days, we would handle mail at 10:30 a.m. when the mail finally arrived from the mailroom. We thus started the day with scoring a goal—undertaking a service delivery activity. Now the first thing we do is open the email, and suddenly one hour has evaporated. Some of us have not disabled the email alert, so we get interrupted every time a new email arrives.

As a therapy, I suggest not opening your email until after your morning coffee and then look at emails only once or twice more during the day. If something is very important, you will get a phone call. This technique will help you get more 1.5-hour blocks of concentrated time in your day. If you do receive the odd urgent email, you could, as a friend of mine does, scan for these at 8:30 a.m. My friend, however, had the control only to handle these urgent emails and then moved on with the day, leaving the replies to the bulk of the emails to late in the day. For me, even looking at the in-box before 10:30 a.m. is too risky as curiosity wins every time.

Rule 2: Never send emails late at night or at the weekends

There is nothing wrong in having an idea late at night or on the weekend and putting it into an email.  The key is to schedule the “send” anytime between 8.00 am to 9 am on the next business day.  If you would not ring that staff person at 11pm then do not press send. If you do ring staff out of office hours, then you need therapy.

In France, they have made it illegal to send work emails over the weekend. The law requires companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer emails. The goals of the law include making sure employees are fairly paid for work and preventing burnout by protecting private time.

As French legislator Benoit Hamon indicated, the law is an answer to the travails of employees who “leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash—like a dog.”

Rule 3: The five-sentence rule

Treat all email responses like text messages and limit them to something you can count easily: five sentences. With only five sentences, the writer is forced to ensure that all terms, conditions, and papers are attached to the email. This has the added benefit of ensuring that all important documents are saved seperately.

Rule 4: Have an attention-grabbing header

Make the header the main message of the email. For example: Freeing up more time—reengineering of_____________. Never recycle the header you received in previous correspondence. Make the header more meaningful. If you cannot think of a good email header, maybe you should not send the email.

Rule 5: Embrace “inbox zero”

The “inbox zero” technique has been around for a while. It means that you never have 2,000 emails in your inbox as some sort of primitive to do list.  You only have unsorted and unactioned emails that have arrived in the last few hours.  This is how it can work:

Setup

  1. The first painful sorting process. Sort by age and delete everything over say ___ months. You will need to recover some emails later, so what. Sort by name and then you are ready to file in your subject areas.
  2. Set up a folder structure that works for you. I recently met Matthew, a very successful CFO, and he has a “to do” folder broken out by the days in the week. When he goes to a Tuesday morning meeting he knows what emails he needs to look at before attending.
  3. Spend time blocking those annoying senders by setting up rules. One CEO I know blocks all cc emails

Daily Operation

  1. Only look at emails 2 or 3 times a day when you have freed up enough time, so you can action them in the moment, rather than handle the same email two or three times. Remember the adage “Handle a piece of paper once”, this applies also to emails.  That means read, action, delete, read, action, delete until the box is empty.  The first view no earlier than 10.30am, see rule 1.
  2. Target deleting one in four of the newly arrived emails using the “Reading pane” option where you can see the content of each email without opening them. Only when you are regularly deleting emails that you need to get resent are you deleting too much.
  3. Before giving birth to a chain email, or simply “passing the parcel”. Think, would a phone call be quicker. Or, word the email so that the reader is not expected to respond back.  Remember emails are not to be confused with ACTION. An email never got a project completed.  It is the actual work carried out by someone that is the key to getting things done.

Rule 6: Only send an email to those people whom you are prepared to phone

Promote yourself by your endeavours, not by your use of broadcast emails, reply all, or copy correspondence. Avoid sending broadcast emails unless you are prepared to call up each person to advise them that there is a key document that they need to read.

Rule 7: If you would not put your words in a letter, do not put them in an email

Far too often, the content of emails, while amusing, is not appropriate. Be careful about being the bearer of silly jokes. Today many people seem to want to be remembered by their joke telling. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a joke, but when the same people send a couple a week, you do wonder what they do all day. Remember, perception rules everything. You do not want to be perceived as a person whose prime focus is to entertain, such as Ricky Gervais in the original The Office. You want to be appreciated in more positive terms.

Rule 8: Master your Email application’s tools section

The experts have been busy improving the ways we can handle emails. The applications you use for emails will have many features you have never opened. Many readers have mastered word and spreadsheet applications, yet they know least about the one application they use the most. Master the new features; it will take a 30-minute session with an expert. You need to know and master:

  • How to turn off the Outlook automatic notifiers
  • How to use filters to sort and prioritize
  • How to get newsletters automatically sent straight to a folder that you access twice weekly
  • How to set up auto-responders to acknowledge and advise response time
  • How to use filters, flags, colours, and sorting

Rule 9: Beware of sending a rebuff email

For complex responses, complaints, rebuffs, and the like, draft the email and file in the drafts section of your email application overnight, as you may well have second thoughts. It is a good idea to send these draft emails to your mentor. Many a career has been dented by a poorly thought-out email written in anger.

Rule 10: Monkey-on-the-back emails

Many people are using the email system to pass their workload on to others. In many cases, people contact known experts and ask for their help without having done any research themselves. In other words, they are passing the monkey on their back to the expert.

A colleague of mine, who was an internationally recognized expert, advised me that the best way is to politely thank the sender for the email and then say, “Please call when convenient to discuss.” Based on his experience, this gets rid of 95 percent of the requests.

An extract from his working guide: Don’t Say That I Didn’t Tell You: Advice from a father to his 20-something-daughters

2 . Eat a frog every morning

How often do you have a task that you need and want to do but you find every reason why you should not start it.  Here is a cure. It will change your life.

Nearly 25% of adults around the world are chronic procrastinators,” according to research conducted by Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University and author of the book “Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done.”

Mark Twain once said that if you eat a frog first thing in the morning, you know that the rest of your day will be better because the worst is behind you. After all, you’ve already eaten a frog, what’s the worst that could happen?

Far too often we dread a task (Mark Twain’s frog), perceiving that it is either nearly impossible or we simply hate doing it.  It creates a dark mood that impacts our ability to focus and complete other tasks.

I learnt on a self-development course to ask myself, when I wake up in the morning, “What don’t I want to do today”. The subconscious will answer you back honestly. Your task, when you arrive at work, is to do that very thing that is unpalatable to you. Make that call, organise that appointment, give that reprimand or write that report you have been avoiding. Two things will happen: the feared task will not be so hard to complete, and you will feel much lighter as this great weight is lifted off you. Try it – I hope you find it as useful as I have.

3. Have a Blue Sky Friday every week 

When you are back in the thick of it always have a morning, every week set aside for thinking about and progressing the future.

Far too many of us are caught firefighting all the time. Never getting enough time to plan to make the future a better place.

During an overseas speaking tour, I was with a good friend one Sunday afternoon, visiting a church fair. We had run out of things to do.  Among the stalls was a person selling new lounge chairs.  We soon got into conversation with the salesmen.  My friend Clive said, “I think I have one of these in the shed, but I have never used it.”  The salesman, too honest for his own good said “So do I, and likewise, it is never used.”  Both men were too busy to use their lounger and contemplate the future.

When I arrived back at my office I realized, that I had an unused lounge chair and was not spending enough time focusing on my future. Hence on Friday mornings, I move my laptop from my home office to the lounge, bring in my lounge chair and then begin to undertake tasks that shape my future.

Suggested Rules for a Blue-Sky Friday

The rules I adopt during this session are:

  • To focus on the “important but not yet urgent tasks,” The report that needs writing, the presentation that needs careful preparation, the research into new system etc
  • No answering phone calls, texts, emails
  • No time spent on Facebook, Linked-in, or other addictive social media
  • To make strategic phone calls to organise site visits to see new systems, staff training, organising one-to one with staff
  • To write important emails

An extract from his working guide: Don’t Say That I Didn’t Tell You: Advice from a father to his 20-something-daughters

4. Have a cluster of mentors

Only the foolish venture forward, without having a mentor supporting them, from behind the scenes. The main type of mentor is normally someone older than you, wiser, with more grey hair, who knows something about what you are doing. In other words, it could be a retired CEO of the business, a retired board member who has known you for a while, a professional mentor, or someone in the sector where this is no conflict of interest.

A good mentor will save your career several times. With the advent of email, a career – limiting event is only a click away by pressing the send button. The mentor is someone whom you ask, “Please look at this? I am thinking of copying in the CEO.” To which the mentor replies, “Let’s have a coffee first before it is sent,” after which, when asked about the email, you reply, “What email?”

Mentors are also well connected and often will further your career during discussions with their peers. They often receive, as payment, only the occasional good meal, while others will do it for a living. When looking for a mentor, start at the top and work down. Even the most successful people are happy to mentor up-and-coming younger guns. Asking someone to become your mentor is one of the largest compliments you can give.

Finding and using a mentor

In business, many costly failures could have been averted if advice had been sought from a trusted and wise mentor.  The key is the selection (and use) of your mentor/adviser and realizing that just because you have asked once, this does not preclude a second or third request for help.

As many writers have pointed out, including the legendary leader Jack Welch, you will seldom find all your help in one mentor. It is far better to find a series of mentors who can help you with different decisions. Whilst organisations need to get behind mentorship programmes, it is really up to you, to find people who you can learn from.

Four types of mentor

In a very readable book Mick Ukleja and Robert Lorber  have talked about four different types of mentors.

Upward mentors: These are the people to whom you admire. They have helped and are still helping you become who you are. They can be a parent, grandparent, coach, author, pastor, rabbi, or boss. They may be someone you have yet to meet.

Friendship mentors: These are the people with whom you experience life. You have gone through various stages with them—college, career, or family and work life. They are your peers and you’ve learned from them in a mutually giving way.

Sandpaper mentors: You don’t have to look for them; they always find you! These are people who rub you the wrong way, as they see the world in a totally different way to you. Don’t reject all that they say simply because they are critical or cranky. In reality they can help you—if you are observant, open and non-defensive. In fact, we often marry a  sandpaper mentor!

Downward mentors: These are the people in whom you are investing time to help them progress. They may be younger than you, but not necessarily. When you invest in others in a giving relationship, you learn a lot about yourself. You experience what’s important to you and what should be emphasized and reinforced in your own professional and personal life.

I subscribe to Ukleja’s and Lorber’s views, thus ensuring you have mentors covering these characteristics which will aid you on your journey. I recommend you find a mentor and seek advice on those major decisions—you will notice the difference in your expeditions.

 

Mentor checklist.  Does the proposed mentor
  • 1.  Understands the sector you are in
o Yes   o No
2.  Has reached a senior position, not necessarily a CEO o Yes   o No
3.  Has had a broad career experience o Yes   o No
4.  Has a quick and incisive mind o Yes   o No
5.  A person you look up to and respect o Yes   o No
6.  Normally significantly older than you or has over experiences and knowledge you can learn from o Yes   o No
7.  Has useful contacts o Yes   o No
8.  Is well respected by others o Yes   o No
9.  Is well read o Yes   o No
10.Is patient and tolerant o Yes   o No
11.Sees their role as mentor as important and thus commits to making meeting dates o Yes   o No

(you need to find someone who scores over 6)

5.Ways to save time in meetings

Girls as you climb up the tree you will be involved more and more in meetings. I do not envy you at all. You will find that 90% of meetings do not actually do anything. No action points, or action points that nobody monitors so no action takes place before the next meeting.

Before you become a “Meeting Junkie” read this advice.

Abandon as many meetings as you can

Only participate in meetings where action occurs.  Monitor the action after a meeting and if progress is not being made, make it clear that the next meeting will be deferred until progress has been achieved. Jack Welch, while CEO of GE, would stop presentations when he realized they had in fact done nothing. He told the culprits to come back at 5pm with some implementation to report.

Banning morning staff meetings

A beneficial start to the day is to avoid having staff meetings during your productive time.  I fail to see why senior management feel the need to have meetings with their direct reports at 9 am on Monday mornings. Such meetings often are followed with more meetings as the debriefing is passed down the chain in the larger organisations. Why not schedule most of your meetings in the afternoon?

Do not allow people to arrive late at the meeting — lock them out

Every late arrival creates a two-minute disruption. That is 20 minutes lost if 10 are in attendance. In some organisations you are only important if you arrive late.  If you can get agreement on this rule you will be surprised how this action will change meeting behaviour.

Allow people to walk out of meetings

Organise the agenda so that people who can only contribute to one agenda item speak to this issue first and are then allowed to leave.  This simple change has the added benefit of letting the junior staff speak first thus avoiding their opinions being influenced by meeting bullies. Nathan Donaldson, an entrepreneurial CEO, allows attendees to remove themselves from a meeting, with a cursory nod to the chairperson, when they feel their time would be better spent elsewhere.  As Nathan pointed out to me, after the second departure you wrap up the meeting swiftly.

Turn meetings into workshops

If you are having many meetings with your staff maybe they are not progressing. Turn more of your meeting into lock-up workshops with whiteboards and lap tops, and push the project on by completing a delivery.  By doing this you will also give your direct reports some training as they see how the master does it.

Deliver instead of attending a briefing meeting

As a manager, monitor the number of meetings your team gets drawn into.  One IT manager I met vetted all meetings and in many simple exercises, told the in-house client that they would deliver the solution, rather than have a meeting to discuss it.

Keep meetings below the magic number of six participants

At this threshold the meeting becomes dysfunctional, taking too long, affecting engagement as some junior participants will not have the allotted time or inclination to participate fully.

Get the sitting arrangement right

As chairperson, it may be best to sit in the middle of the table as you will be nearer all participants including any troublemakers.

Fortnightly one-to-one meetings

Schedule your one-to-one meetings with your direct reports fortnightly as weekly meetings are to frequent; it does not give staff enough time to recover from under performing in the early part of the week. Consider holding some of these offsite over a lunch which gives staff a chance to unwind and share more confidential issues.

Beware that in some cultures to disagree is rude

Best to ask them a question rather than ask if they agree. As Eon Black, an international trouble-shooter, and a long-term executive for BP Oil, related to me whenever local staff reverted to their mother tongue, he knew there was a problem that he had to unearth.

Virtual meetings

Hold more video-based meetings, rather than insist on attendees flying-in. This can be achieved by using technology, such as Zoom, GoToMeetings etc.

 

6. The 15 second rule for short term “To Do” actions

I am a member of a dining club and I need to pay fees at each dinner I attend.  It is a task I always leave to later, until I get chased up and am embarrassed into action. Murray, a successful businessman, told me about the 15 second rule. He said that the frontal cortex holds short term “to do” actions for about 15 seconds. When you realise you must do something you have 15 seconds to take some action or resign yourself to having to think about it again, some other time.

I researched this suggestion and found that the prefrontal cortex holds a thought for 15 seconds, these thoughts are like “the brain’s Post-it notes”, and they fall off if you do not action them.

I am now an avid follower of the 15 second rule.  When working on a Rock task I am normally focused enough to avoid these thoughts.  However, when working on general issues, if a thought crosses my mind, I now ask, “Do I want to complete this easy task or think about it again?”  Invariably I do it.

7. Move to a stand-up desk with three screens

One common response I find when asking workshop attendees who have three screens, if they would go back to working with one or two screens is a resounding “Hell, No!”

In this picture you see that I have a stand—up desk with three screens.  The middle one being my laptop.  I would have four, except it would cut out my sea view.

If you have one or two screens you are driving a model T Ford. Try three screens for a week you will never go back. Please note I am not suggesting that you use one for your emails. I have already suggested that these are to be reviewed only two or three times a day starting at 10.30 am.

Research points out that stand-up desks will increase life expectancy and your productivity. Interestingly, if you sit for more than 8 hours a day you have:

  • 91% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes
  • 14% increased risk of heart disease
  • 15% increased risk of early death

Interestingly, no amount of exercise in the early morning or after work can eradicate the damage caused by sitting for this length of time.

I now only use my chair for 40% of the time. Search the article “Five Health Benefits of Standing Desks” for more information.

8. Never move a meeting because you are busy

I learnt this lesson when I was a consultant in London.  It snowed and the four inches that settled on the road brought chaos, laughable to those in snow ravaged countries of Europe. We were to meet the client at their premises. The client cancelled as he was stuck at home.

The partner said we can visit you at home.  We spent the whole day getting there and back.  On the trip back I asked the partner, “Why did we not move it to another day, it would have been more efficient.”  He responded, “When you move a meeting, you have rolled that commitment into another day.” I never  cancel meetings I need to have.  These words have resonated in my mind, for the last 30 years, every time when it looks easier to move the meeting to another date.  Each time I have not I look back and thanked that partner for the great advice.

9.  Have a meditation walk during the day

In order to create some thinking time in a busy day we can learn from the naturalist, geologist and biologist, Charles Darwin.  Besides working in two-hour blocks, he always went on a meditation walk every day.  The importance here is that it is done during the day and is not to be seen as a workout.  It is a simple 10-20-minute mental exercise.

In Darwin’s case he walked on an all-weather track around his property. The importance of the repetition is that you can perform the task in a semi hypnotic state, leaving your mind to wander. He always had his black book with him where he would note down his thoughts.  This is where he first came up with the “tree of life” and it is there to see in his black book.

10. Become a finisher

If you don’t finish what you start you may as well have been watching Netflix for what good the work to date has done.

There are some times when to not finish is the right idea:

  • You were testing out a new idea and it is clearly not going to work – great that you tried it, it failed, let’s move on (abandonment).
  • A project has drifted for so long that the benefits that the project offers, on completion, are now no longer valid. Times have moved on.
  • It is a project at home that you are not sure why you are procrastinating – maybe you are searching for more information.

In all other circumstances finish the project. This will separate you from many of your colleagues who find it difficult to finish projects.

Why you aren’t finishing your projects

  1. You are addicted to fresh starts

Dr. Susan K Perry, in Psychology Today, points out that, “Starting a new project is like falling in love. It’s exciting, emotionally arousing, and infused with the natural motivator of novelty. Perhaps we even get obsessive about this new activity. We imagine it as “all good” and don’t pay much attention to potential obstacles, downsides, or challenges we may soon face.” 

In other wordings there is an addiction to fresh starts whereas, we need an addiction to finishing.

  1. Fear of failing to impress.

One of the reasons people don’t like finishing major projects that have overrun their budget is their fear of the dreaded post project review. This is prevalent in organisation’s that have a rampant blame culture.

So, with IT projects the project team often welcome scope creep. As Joseph Ferrari says, “People don’t want to have their ability judged, they’d rather have their effort judged.”

  1. Not wanting to put an end to the fun and the kudos.

If you’re having a good time working on a project or task, the prospect of finishing can be disappointing. The thought of going back to the weekly dreary team meeting on a Monday morning, writing those reports that nobody reads, or even worse worrying that there is not enough on your plate leading to the fear of being made redundant. These are enough for you to want to work on a go slow.

  1. You are always underestimating the time it will take to complete

For the last forty years, I have seldom seen projects come in on schedule. Project teams have done huge Gantt charts to estimate the elapsed time, tried to account for conflicting demands on key people and yet it all is useless.

Here are some fixes

  1. Limit the number of projects on the go at any point in time

Girls, when you become managers, always know how many projects that are on the go at any point in time. Make sure you have a team board that shows the projects and what status they are at.  It does two things. Communicates to you the number of projects you have and thus will encourage you to stop saying “Yes we can do that” in meetings, and secondly, embarrasses the team member to finish.

  1. Become better at estimating time by using the rule of three

This is so important that I have covered it in another section in more detail.  In summary you are never full time ever on a project.  If you or a staff person at designated a full time lead for a project assume that each week you will manage 3 days on the project.  Thus a 60 day project will take 20 weeks, not 12 weeks as you would have originally estimated.

  1. Learn to tackle, everyday, the one thing you DO NOT want to do

There is a technique which I have discussed in another section, called “Why You Should Eat a Frog Every Morning.”  In summary the task you are procrastinating over is never as bad as your mind has made it. You will know this.  And, when you complete the task you feel a great weight come off your shoulders.

  1. Adopt Agile techniques

Back in my day  you would spend weeks planning out a project even though you knew that, as in all previous projects, time would make a mockery of the planning.  So adopt the SCRUM methodology.  Yes, I know that you think you know all about scrums.  But, if you have not attended a two day  scrum course you still have a beginners belt on whereas you need a black belt. I cover scrums in a different section.

Other useful techniques are Kanban boards

  1. Have a work week / home week fortnight

This greatly simplifies your priority setting making it easier to say “NO”. Once, after making little progress on a house renovation, I decided to break my commitments down into a work focused week and a home restoration focused week.  In the restoration week I would use lunchtimes to acquire the appropriate products and services. Evenings were always spent in overalls.  It was exhausting, yet very satisfying as I knew the next week was a total break.  I did not even fix a loose door handle.  It was work week.  Long hours punching through the ceiling at work.  Everybody would comment “David is a hard and effective worker” not realising that I had restricted my working hours the previous week.

An extract from his working guide: Don’t Say That I Didn’t Tell You: Advice from a father to his 20-something-daughters