Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.

 

5 Time Management Tips for Top Executives

Maren Kate Donovan

Maren Kate Donovan

I had the pleasure of talking with Maren Kate Donovan, the CEO of Zirtual on a busy day in New York the other day, regarding some insights she's developed around executive productivity.  She has distilled these down to 5 tips through things she's learned on her journey at Zirtual, where she has created a company that provides virtual assistant services to executives.  

She's learned through trial & error, watching more experienced people, and interviewing others who were already doing the things to which she aspired - an approach I love.  Here are her tips, along with some comments from me.

Maren's Top 5

1. "Hire people smarter than you."  Put another way, Maren says , "Don't be the smartest person in the room."  This is where you need to check your ego, and recognize that your success will be greater and more sustainable if you surround yourself with great people.

From my experience, this rings true.  After all, haven't we all heard the old advice that if you want to get better at a sport, you need to play against someone better than you?  

2. "Create a system of accountability." Set expectations by giving people a due date & time, and give them specifics about what you expect from them in terms of results.  Maren says this will help drive greater organization and focus.

I think what Maren says is true, but I'd go one step further - accountability is a two-way street, in that you can expect it all you want, but the other person has to accept accountability for this to truly work.  And that is where the clarity Maren describes comes into play: before you accept accountability for something, make sure you have a clear idea of what success looks like, and insist that you have the time, ability, and resources to deliver.

3. "Make sure your employees are familiar with your products." Maren believes it is vital that your employees understand your products, and how to use them.  Additionally, she recommends you share your expectations of product quality, responsiveness to customers, and other aspects that will come into play as they do their jobs.

She explains:  She often hires people who are experienced in "the business world," but when she brings them into her organization to function as virtual assistants (VA's), she needs to make sure they understand her expectations as a Zirtual VA.  She put them through hands-on training as a VA with a mentor, so they can learn and get feedback in real-time.  This higher touch model up-front pays dividends down the line, where they can work independently while still upholding Zirtual's standards.

I agree, of course, and believe this is critical to a couple of principles I hold near & dear: Know how your company makes money, and figure out what you need to do to stand out from your competition.  I also believe strongly in mentor/apprenticeship types of training - there is no substitute for doing the work when you want to learn quickly.

4. "Use the 'I'd have a drink with this person' test."  Maren believes part of success is in creating a connection with your employees and partners, and that you can tell if that is working by having a drink with them - whether that is coffee, tea, wine, etc.  That activity builds rapport, camaraderie, and helps a culture gel in a way that establishes behavioral norms within your company.  In other words, it is part of what makes it more than just a job.  I find that this kind of approach also helps you develop a natural, corporate, immune system that helps people who don't fit in your company decide to move on to their next gig - and that can be a good thing, believe me.

5. "Figure out what people are good at and leverage their strengths."  To continue along the lines of tip 4's theme of making work feel like "more than just a job," to keep people engaged, Maren suggests you spend time figuring out what your team members are good at and what they are passionate about.  Keep in mind that this may take you beyond the job they were officially hired to do.  She told me stories about people in her organizations that were financially-savvy and, even though their core job was something else altogether, she involved them in financial planning and analysis to keep them challenged and engaged.

I'm a big fan of this approach, too, because I believe it gets employees' creative juices going like nothing else.  It also gives you the opportunity to cross-train people in your team and build bench strength in your organization.  Furthermore, it helps with career progression, in that it makes it easier to provide more options for people who may want to move out of their current job into something new.

As a CEO herself, I asked Maren what her key advice is to new or aspiring CEO's.  Here are her thoughts:

Read everything you can.  Meet with other people who are doing what you're doing, or doing things you want to be doing.  Spend time networking to learn - ask other leaders to lunch, coffee, or just a phone call to chat.  Learn to use the power of delegation - for example, if you hire a virtual assistant for less than $20 an hour and your time is worth more than that, then you're wasting money by not finding ways to delegate tasks that don't play to your unique strengths.

Maren gives great advice, for sure, and I don't think its value is limited to C-level executives.  

What about you?  Do you have any best practices, practical advice, or tips for better time management?  Please share!


Have you checked out the "Toolbox for Success: What You Need To Know To Succeed As A Professional" yet?  In this Kindle-only book, you’ll find a collection of lessons learned, resources, and stories that I offer to help you on your journey to greater success. 

Productivity tip for podcast listeners

I listen to a lot of podcasts during my commute, while traveling, and while running or walking.  For me, this is a crucial activity to "feed my head" with data about topics I care about.  If you like podcasts, but feel like you don't have enough time to keep up, I have a tip to make it more productive:  Variable Speed Playback

Back in the day, I began listening to audio books on my iPod and discovered that the iPod had a built-in setting to allow me to adjust the playback speed of the books (you could slow it down, as well as speed it up).  I began to enjoy the time-compression advantages of listening to the audiobooks faster (typically 1.5x) - after all, a 30-hour book suddenly became a 20-hour book - what's not to love?

Since then, Variable Speed Playback is a must-have feature for any podcast player I use.

Here are some additional tips and things I've learned about this:

  • Not all time-compression algorithms are created equal.  All of the variable-speed algorithms attempt to speed up the playback while maintaining the pitch of the voice so people don't sound like chipmunks.  Some players use algorithms that are good at this, others suck at it - you have to try them out to find one that sounds 'natural enough' to you.
  • If you are bothered by the faster voice rate, give it 3-5 minutes to settle in.  Your brain will adjust and it will sound normal after a few minutes.
  • My default playback rate is 1.5x, but there isn't a "one speed fits all" option.  Some podcasters talk very slow, so you might need to go to 1.75x or 2x.  Others talk very quickly, so you may not be able to speed them up at all - no biggie, you're being productive enough because they are loading you up with high-density information.
  • Some podcasts are not well-suited for speedups - for example, those with a lot of music, or being presented by people with strong accents, or by groups of people with at least one "fast talker" in the bunch.  You'll get to know which of your podcasts are accelerate able, and which aren't.
  • Along the same lines, I prefer podcast players that can maintain a speed setting for each podcast so you don't have to adjust any time a new one starts.
    • On iOS, I love Downcast (image on the left at the end of this post) - it has a default setting that works globally, as well as making it easy to define a local setting for each podcast.  It also has a great variable speed algorithm that works well for a variety of podcast types.
    • On Android, I like BeyondPod (image on the right at the end of this post) - it has a default setting globally, an easy way to adjust the playback speed on the fly (with pre-set rates, or an variable slider), as well as a great algorithm for variable speed playback.  The only thing is lacks is the ability to remember the speed setting for each podcast individually - still on the hunt for that on Android in a player that isn't fatally flawed in some other way.

I've had a few folks who thought I was crazy when I recommended this, but several of them have come back telling me they are believers.  By the way, I use sped-up playback with the Audible player for audiobooks - also a huge time saver.

Give it a try and let me know what you think.

 

Downcast for iOS
(click to embiggen)

BeyondPod for Android
(click to embiggen)

 

Conquering Burnout, and Achieving a Healthy Work-Life Balance

Do you have to drag your body out of bed on weekday mornings? Does the idea of spending another day at the office fill you with dread? Are you finding it harder and harder to get excited about your job and the work that you do?

If so, chances are good that you are suffering from job burnout. This has been a big topic at tech conferences in the past year (I'm in the tech industry) but I think it applies far beyond tech.

According to the Mayo Clinic, work-related burnout is a form of stress that can cause us to feel mentally, emotionally or physically tired. It can give us unusual doubts about our abilities to perform as well as we usually do. Job burnout can also lead to unpleasant symptoms like headaches, a change in appetite, and poor sleep.

Why Do We Get Burned Out?

Although the reasons we feel burned out at work vary from person to person and job to job, some common culprits include feeling out of control at work. For example, having little or no say over your schedule or assignments, or having a micromanager as a boss can be triggers. When you're spending so much of your day at work, that it feels like there's never enough time or energy to be with your family and friends doing activities that you enjoy, that's when burnout sets in.

Fortunately, these negative and unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms do not have to last forever. There are steps that you can take to reduce job burnout.

Identify What is Causing the Stress

One of the best ways to reduce job burnout is to have an honest conversation with yourself about what is causing you to feel so miserable in the first place. If you feel you spend too many hours in the office, consider approaching your supervisor about the possibility of telecommuting. Or, ask if you can have more of a say in the projects or assignments you're part of in the future.

Take Responsibility For Your Own Well-Being

This is a saying I use a lot, and it relates to the previous point.  When they feel stuck, sometimes people need to be reminded that they can take action to shape their lives - maybe that's you, sometimes.  

For example, take the initiative to share your goals and aspirations with your boss; that can help them see you in a different light and reduce the risk that you'll be "type cast" in a specific, confining role.  Or, you may have skills and talents that they don't know about, so you can make them aware the things you're good at doing.  Or, perhaps a particular aspect of the job is energizing to you and you can ask them to let you do more of that type of work.

Realize That Your Job is Not Set in Stone

As the Huffington Post notes, if your best efforts to change the negative work environment do not pay off, you might want to consider changing your job. Sometimes giving yourself permission to start looking for a new career can be incredibly freeing. Take some time to research different jobs that might appeal to you, and if you can, talk to folks who are already working in those fields. For example, if you have always dreamed about owning your own restaurant, maybe you could speak with some local café owners to get an idea of how much work might be involved. Or, if you have always wanted to work with children, you might consider volunteering at a school to see if being around kids is truly for you. There are websites and services can also help you determine which new career path might be best, and they can even offer educational opportunities to turn your dreams into reality. For instance, if a career in the pharmaceutical field sounds appealing, organizations like the Penn Foster school offer convenient online education opportunities, including a pharmacy technician career diploma.

Nurture Your Non-Work Interests

As Lisa Gerry's article in Forbes explains, it is important to have interests and hobbies that have absolutely nothing to do with work. For example, consider volunteering your time with a local charity. You can involves with a pet rescue group, sign up for a fun fitness class at the gym, or pick up that old box of stamps you collected as a kid and see if you can renew your love of all things philatelic. When you are passionate about something other than work, it can help to keep your life in a better balance.

This can also be a good reminder to create better boundaries between work and home or hobbies.  If you check email all the time when you aren't at work, your whole life can feel like work.  Try to consciously "switch" from work to home when you leave, to give yourself that physical and psychological break that you need to recharge.

Make Sure You are Getting Enough Z’s

Speaking of recharging, if you are routinely burning the midnight oil, do what you can to get more rest. Being sleep deprived can not only impact your mood and job performance, but it can also make you less motivated, making it more difficult to focus and get work done in a timely manner. Getting more sleep will probably help you get your work done sooner, which will allow you to spend less time in the office and more time doing things you enjoy.

Take Care Of Your Physical Health

A lot of what I've presented here is psychological, but don't overlook the value of your physical health.  As I mentioned recently, I've been focusing more of my attention on diet and exercise, and it has helped me a lot - not just from a 'vital signs' perspective, but by increasing my energy level, improving my sleep, and helping me feel better about what I'm doing both at work and away from the job.

The bottom line? If you are feeling burned out, don't just settle for a life of drudgery.  There is plenty you can do to improve things.

Take better notes: Top tips for students and professionals

If you're like me, you spend a lot of time in meetings, and you can't remember everything that happens.  That means you take a lot of notes, right?  Unfortunately, many of us have had to learn how to take notes via "trial by fire" exercises - in other words, you just have to figure it out on your own.

Note Taking 101: Have a system in mind

I recently discovered a great resource with information about taking notes:  an article from OnlineUniversities.com on "Note Taking 101" which does a great job of covering the basics of good note taking, focusing on tools and systems you can use to take better notes.  This is in the "student resources" category of their site, but I think their tips will help whether you are a student or working out in the business world.

One of the techniques they outline, "the Cornell Method," is similar to one I was taught about 10 years ago.  This system involves breaking your page up into "zones" (as shown in the illustration, which I have borrowed from their article).  Essentially, you create a systematic way of capturing different elements of a talk or meeting in each zone which makes it easier to reference an process the information after-the-fact.

I noticed that Moleskine has recently begun offering "Moleskine Folio Notebooks" that have similar organizational blocks pre-printed on the page (see right, and click for a larger view.   The Moleskine structure is a bit different, in that the summaries are at the top of the page, but I think it can be used in a similar way.  I also like that the "Cue Column" is always on the edge of the page.

I like this model, and augment it with my own shorthand, like noting things I learn about clients and people with whom I'm trying to build relationships. For example, prefixing something as "BG: " means it is a business goal of theirs, "PG: " precedes a personal goal, etc.  In the "Cue Column" I use little boxes to denote action items, "RD" for things I want to Research & Develop; F/U for things requiring Follow-Up, etc.  You can, of course, evolve your own nomenclature for this to suit your needs.

Electronic Notes

With the advent of tools like Evernote and OneNote (both of which are mentioned in the "Note Taking 101" article) I have taken more notes electronically over the past several years.  Using an iPad Keyboard has helped a lot - both in terms of accuracy, as well as share-ability (I can immediately email my notes to other attendees via Evernote, or even share an electronic notebook for team collaboration).

The elements of note taking are similar to those outlined in the article, but the structure is different because of the nature of the online "page" structure.  This is another area where coming up with consistent  nomenclature is a key factor in making the notes usable over the long haul.  

Note: I've been experimenting with adding hashtags to my notes for better search ability,  such as "#BG:" for business goals, and "#PG:" for personal goals.  I like that approach and will likely switch to that standard in my handwritten notes, just to make the habit more consistent.

A Hybrid Approach

Of course, I switch back & forth between paper and electronic notes, for various reasons.  Evernote has been making it easier for the last year or two, but joining forces with Moleskine to create Evernote versions of the Moleskine notebooks.  These have special stickers and special colors on the Moleskine pages so that your notes and drawings can be process and indexed more easily by Evernote (which can decipher most handwriting and make it searchable, by the way).

These notebooks are nice, since you can write in them with any old pen and convert them to digital by taking a picture of them with the Evernote app on your smartphone.

Much More in the Article

I've focused on some of the tips in the article that are more relevant to me, but there is a lot more there, including:

  • 12 Tips for standardizing your notes
  • How to use Mind Mapping to take better notes (I'm a big fan of mind maps, since I'm a visual learner)
  • Audio notes
  • Outlines as a note taking tool

Note Taking 101 is a great resource - go check it out, and let me know how it goes.


Have you checked out the "Toolbox for Success: What You Need To Know To Succeed As A Professional" yet?  In this Kindle-only book, you’ll find a collection of lessons learned, resources, and stories that I offer to help you on your journey to greater success. 

How to lose 50 pounds in 6 months

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've lost over 50 pounds since last July and have learned some things along the way.  I thought I'd share some of my experience here, in the hopes that others might benefit.  By the way - I know this ended up being a bit long, but hopefully it's broken up enough to make it usable.

First, I started this journey due to a "wake up call" from my Doctor at my last physical.  Getting older, plus a lot of travel, plus some bad habits (no exercise, poor discipline when it comes to eating, etc.) had all stacked up and the odds were no longer in my favor.  Here is what I did.

Goals

Working with my doctor, I set a target weight based on my height, age, etc.  To get to my target, the basic math never changes:  you need to consume fewer calories than you burn.  I didn't want to try some "quick fix" fad diet, so I tried to approach this in a way that I could maintain over the long haul.

With the weight target in hand, I determined the number of calories needed to maintain that target weight, using an online calorie calculator.

From there, I set several goals to support my journey:

  • exercise at least 3 times per week.
  • consume calories at or below my daily target to maintain my goal weight
  • lose at least a pound a week until I reach "steady state" at this new calorie level
  • reduce my sodium intake (blood pressure was one of the concerns that came up in my physical exam)

Instrumentation

As you may gather from this blog, I'm a fan of gadgets. So, naturally, I looked for gadgets that would help me track my progress.  I used several tools for this:

  • A fitness tracking band to track my exercise.  I chose a Fitbit Force which has since been discontinued, but I am also a fan of the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone Up24 from past experience.  By the way, the brand isn't critical - pick one you like that has the features you need - for less stress, look for good battery life
  • A Withings WiFi-enabled digital scale with body composition sensors.  This scale is accurate, automatically updates my phone (the Withings App) with my weight, body fat percentage, pulse, etc. so I can track progress over time.
  • A Withings blood pressure cuff that connects to my iPhone and records blood pressure readings.  This takes your blood pressure readings automatically, and syncs them with the same Withings App that the scale uses
  • MyFitnessPal which is a great app to track what you eat, as well as to track exercise.  This also syncs automatically with my Fitbit and my WIthings scale, which is pretty cool - you can optionally allow it to subtract the calories you burn, for example, so you can eat more if you exercise more.
  • A digital food scale - this is crucial for recording your portion sizes for accuracy
  • I later added a Polar Heart Rate Sensor once I switched form walking to running.  I use their app (Polar Beat) to track distance, pace, calories burned, etc.  I like this app as it gives me audio feedback as run, such as my distance (it uses the phone GPS to track distance), pace, average hear rate, and it tracks distance and calorie records.  You can even "replay" your run on a map view, showing your pace and heart rate at different points along the run.

Of course, you don't need all of these gadgets, but I find they helped keep me motivated.  I believe the "must have" items are MyFitnessPal, the food scale, and some kind of digital scale to weigh yourself.

Habits

Since I'd developed bad habits in the past, I needed to develop new habits to be successful.  The ones I targeted were:

  • walk at least 10,000 steps per day (tracked by the Fitbit)
  • diligently track my food consumption with MyFitnessPal (there is a web site as well as a collection of mobile apps for most platforms)
  • exercise deliberately (i.e. beyond just "incidental" walking during the day) including while traveling
  • once I added running to my routine (more on that below) I set a goal to run at least 3 days per week for at least 30 minutes each session

Diet

At home, I began weighing my portions so I could log them.  MyFitnessPal makes that easier because of its huge database of foods, and its ability (if you're using the smartphone app) to scan a barcode and auto-populate the nutrition and portion information.  After a while, this habit of weighing your portions also helps you guesstimate portions in restaurants to keep you from going way overboard.

I found that measuring and logging my food had another effect: I started thinking about the tradeoffs I wanted to make.  For example, when I realized how many calories I was consuming with my nightly glasses of wine, I knew I either had to "reserve" space in my calorie budget to be able to have my wine or just skip it that day.  The same thing for desserts - I could have that piece of cake, but I needed to not eat something else to make the budget work.  That took a while to get used to, but it's been a good change.

One piece of advice that has really helped:  my doctor told me that if I "blew" a day by eating too much, not to try to make up for it by under-eating the next day.  Instead, he advised me to start fresh the next day and stick to my calorie target.  He explained that we're dealing with averages and that if I'm able to stay at or below my target most 90% of the time, I'll be able to sustain a good level of fitness.

Exercise

Easy does it

From an exercise perspective, I started out with walking.  I'd walk for an hour a day after dinner at a pretty good pace - about 4 miles per hour.  Over time, I began to mix in more hills and occasionally walk for two hours when I could afford the time.  To make the time go by more quickly, I listened to podcasts and audiobooks (I listened to Atlas Shrugged during my evening walks, for example - it is NOT a short book).  I also did a couple of weight workouts per week at my local gym - nothing too extreme, but enough to build strength and balance out the lower-body work from the walks.

Pick up the pace

After a few months, a few things changed - first, the walks got to be a bit monotonous; second, the weather got to be unfriendly; and third my travel picked up which made it harder to find time for the walks.  I started looking for more time-efficient ways to get my workout in, so I began to do more intense (faster) walks in the gym on the elliptical trainers because they worked my arms & legs at the same time.  This worked well, but also got to be a bit monotonous and some hotel gyms didn't have the elliptical trainers. 

Full speed ahead

For my next phase of changes (roughly a month ago), I decided to add running into the mix.  At first, it was challenging since there is a big difference between walking fast and running (in endurance, impact on my knees & hips, etc.)  However, with all the walking I'd done, it wasn't as bad as I feared.  I did some running outside when the weather was good enough, or in the gym on a treadmill when it wasn't - and pretty much every hotel gym has a treadmill.  I've been gradually increasing my distances and my pace to keep things challenging, and the addition of a heart rate strap has been a big help there.

Planning

Along the way, I found that planning ahead was crucial to my success.  Rather than eating what happened to be available, I began planning ahead to try to aid in making good choices.  The same was true of exercise - if I didn't plan ahead, it didn't happen.  For example:

Food Planning

  • General
    • When I'm not traveling, I tend to plan my meals more so I have more control over what I eat rather than being tempted to snack on the first thing at hand or eat something just because "it's there" - this means having a plan before you go shopping, and knowing what your options are when it comes time to prepare meals.
    • When I don't have a lunch appointment, I make and bring my own lunch - again, planning ahead so I don't make less healthy or "off plan" choices
  • Travel
    • I now travel with a stash of Kind bars in my bag (good ingredients, low sodium, and a balanced nutritional profile) in case I find that I need a quick snack on the run.  Starbucks used to carry these, but they have since replaced them with a different brand that also has good nutritional composition, albeit with fewer flavor choices (I like the Almond Cocoa flavor a lot).
    • Grab a durable fruit (like an apple or an orang) and tuck it in your carry-on bag so you have a ready snack.  
      • Carrying napkins and some empty plastic bags can help for cleanup and disposal of the core, peel, seeds, etc
  • Restaurants
    • I do some quick research ahead of time to find out what's on the menu, narrow down my choices ahead of time, and and to determine low-sodium options
      • MyFitnessPal is a big help here - it has calorie nutritional information from a lot of restaurants so you can compare choices
      • I've also noticed that more restaurants provide nutritional information on their menus or web sites, and some even include "meal builder" capabilities so you can customize your choice and see the impact of the changes in real-time

Exercise Planning

  • Schedule workouts, walks, etc. and keep the appointments (it helps to pretend you are meeting with a customer or something so you don't break the appointment)
  • Leave (or plan) time in your travel for workouts
    • for example, I sometimes take advantage of "time zone math" to get a workout in late at night on the east coast, or early in the morning on the west coast
  • Find a good place to run or walk near your office and combine a short walk with a quick lunch a couple of times a week
  • Choose "exercise friendly" hotels.  Hotels have gotten a lot better at telling you what their fitness amenities are on their web sites, which makes this easier all the time.  By the way, through this process I have grown even more for fond of Starwood hotels:
    • Some Starwood hotels (Westin, Sheraton) allow you to rent workout gear for $5 a day - including shoes.  That is hugely convenient when you don't have a lot of room in your suitcase.  Other Starwoods (Le Meridién) will even wash your workout clothes for you overnight, free of charge.
    • Starwood hotels also offer running maps of the local area with short and long running routes.
    • Their Westin brands have begun offering "Westin Workout" rooms, which allow you to reserve a room (in some locations, not all) with a treadmill or an exercise bike right in your room.  I posted a video tour of one of those rooms last year.
    • Most Starwoods offer free apples as a good, healthy snack either at the front desk, in the fitness center, or both.

Results, not just activity

I'm happy to say that this approach (while it may seem overwhelming when you read through it) has worked for me, and hasn't been as difficult as I'd feared.  I have made consistent progress:

Progress graph from the Withings app, showing measurements from my WiFi scale.

Progress graph from the Withings app, showing measurements from my WiFi scale.

  • I've lost over 50 pounds
  • I've lowered my blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels dramatically
  • I've trimmed down (warning, if this goes well, you'll spend quite a bit for a new wardrobe during the first 6 months)
  • I have much better energy and overall fitness

I'm still making progress, and now that I've added more strength exercise into my routine, my weight is holding more steady.  I am now in a "maintain" mode, which I feel I can sustain.

I know there is a lot wrapped up in all of this, and I've probably left some things out.  If you're looking to get into better shape, I hope my experience can help you make great progress.  If you have any questions, drop me a line via email (see my About page) or in the comments below.