Fine-tune your work habits

We human beings must also be human doers. We need to be productive. Most of us have jobs which require results, but even if you’re retired or in a situation in which your spouse provides the household income, you need to be useful to the world. Your sense of well-being is highly dependent upon consistently engaging in meaningful work.

Here are some suggestions on how to plan your work and maximize your efforts.

Do things sooner rather than later.

My boss is a famous author so he’s often asked to autograph his books. One day I walked into his office early in the morning and he had 50 books on his desk that he had been asked to autograph for our graduating seniors. He had just received the list of names of the graduates that morning. He said, “I’ve learned that when I’m asked to do something like this, it’s best just to do it quickly; get it done. I have a week to sign these books, but I’m doing it now.”

All work can be placed on a timeline. Sometimes immediate action is required but usually there is a longer timeframe in which work can be done. In these instances, you might as well do the work sooner rather than later. 

    • We know that IRS tax returns are due on April 15. Why not complete your return in February instead of waiting till the last moment?
    • Your car is running rough. Why not take it to the shop today?

I lead the worship ministry at my church so every seven days my team and I are responsible for a 30-minute Sunday morning music set. The demand is constant and predictable: every seven days, 52 times a year. Early in my ministry I only worked a week or two in advance on the services, which created unnecessary hassle, tension, and less-than-desirable results. Now, we plan at least six months in advance.

Procrastination is seldom beneficial. Do things sooner rather than later.

Start with the most important, largest, and hardest tasks.

Prioritize your work: start with the most important things you need to do, the largest projects, the hardest tasks and those tasks that you are reluctant to do. Here are some examples:

  • Most important—if my company doesn’t sell our products and services, we’ll go out of business. I need to focus on sales.
  • Largest project—I need to get started on planning for my company’s annual conference.
  • Hardest project—I must migrate to a new software program and I don’t know how to do that.
  • Project I’m reluctant to do—I need to confront a team member about his attitude.

Start on these tasks. Work on one until it is finished or until you can’t make any more progress, then move to the next task and do the same. Keep cycling these projects through your work-flow until they are finished. 

Finish small, simple tasks throughout the day, enjoying their brevity and simplicity. 

Our daily to-do list normally includes simple tasks that don’t take much time (call the pharmacy and order a refill; respond to email; set a lunch date with a friend; walk the dog). Finish these simple tasks throughout the day; they will give relief from working on larger, harder, and more tedious tasks. You can even use them to “reward’ yourself for having prioritized more important items, and, they’ll help keep your momentum going.

Build a reward system into your workday. 

Make deals with yourself that will reward you when you complete major tasks: “If I concentrate on my work for the next two hours, I’ll take a 15-minute break to play with my dog, or talk a walk, or get a cup of coffee, or read a book.” Put those carrots in front of the horse and he’ll run faster and farther. 

Prioritize your work and do it sooner rather than later.

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Why can’t we control our speech?

I wrote this post while on a transatlantic cruise heading to the Iberian Peninsula. It took seven days to cross the pond. I love the seven days at sea because they offer hours to read, think, write…and to observe people (2,100 passengers and 999 crew members).

One night after dinner, the entertainment staff led a group of about 30 passengers gathered in one of the lounges in a game they called “Yes and No.” The rules were straightforward: individuals could volunteer to have a conversation with a staff member in which the volunteer could not say the words “yes” or “no”; nor could the volunteer shake his head up or down (indicating “yes” or “no” non-verbally). Any communication of “yes” or “no” disqualifed the volunteer. If the conversation continued for three minutes the volunteer would win a prize.  

A typical conversation sounded like this:

Crew member: Hi, what’s your name?

Volunteer: Matthew 

Crew member: Where are you from Matthew?

Matthew: Chicago.

Crew member: Chicago; great city; were you born there?

Matthew: No 

end of game…

I watched 11 people try. They all failed.

Reflecting on the experience, I immediately thought of that bold statement made by the apostle James: “No man can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). In the “Yes and No” game, the only restriction was to avoid saying two words—that was all—but no one could comply. 

A few hours after Mary and I observed the “Yes and No” game, I failed at a similar version of the game. Ephesians 4:29 says “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths” so the rule of that version of the game would be: see how long you can go without speaking an unwholesome word.

Mary and I had a tiff, during which I said some hurtful things…to the person I love the most. I was saddened by my words, I asked Mary’s forgiveness, and I vowed to do a better job filtering my speech.

Why is it so difficult to control our speech? My guess is, our speech is simply a verbalization of our thoughts and often we don’t filter our thoughts before they become sound waves. In James 1:19 we’re instructed to be “slow to speak,” but most of us are fast to speak. One way to slow down our speech is to simply understand that we need not say everything we think, so before we speak, we should take a millisecond to analyze what we’re about to say and when necessary, keep our mouth shut. In other words, before you turn your thoughts into words, run them through some filters:    

    • Are these words appropriate? 
    • Will they express grace and truth? 
    • Is this the right time and place to say these words? 
    • Will I regret saying these words? 
    • Are these words necessary? 
    • Will they be an improvement on silence?

It’s true—no man can tame the tongue—but that shouldn’t discourage us from trying. We’ll never gain total control but we can continually improve. 

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Sometimes it’s best to start without the end in mind

In Stephen Covey’s insightful book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the habits is to “start with the end in mind.” Before you begin a project, have a clear picture in your mind as to what the final product will look like. That’s good advice. 

But sometimes it’s best to adopt the opposite strategy: start a project even though you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, in which case you’ll “build the bridge as you walk on it.” 

The former strategy (start with the end in mind) is preferred because you can move fast, not waste resources and momentum through trial and error, easily communicate the project to team members, stay on budget, and enjoy a predictable process and conclusion. It’s a very efficient model. For example, if you’re going to build a house, have detailed drawings about every major and minor aspect before work commences, and the project can progress more smoothly. 

But sometimes you might have a young, unformed idea that you want to pursue (perhaps an entrepreneurial pursuit) and you don’t have a clue as to what the end might look like, in which case, you just need to start. For example, my daughter, Lauren, recently started a new business dealing with environmental sustainability. Her business plan was novel. When she launched the business all she could see were the first few steps (trademark the name, start an LLC, open a checking account, build a basic website, etc.). After that, she just “walked through the fog” each day (for the first few years) until a clear and viable business formed. 

Sometimes you do know exactly what you want to accomplish but don’t know how it’s going to happen, in which case, you also just need to start. For example, when I finished my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to earn a Ph.D. so I promptly registered for graduate school. I had no idea how I was going to pay for it, how I would negotiate school with the demands of a young family and work, what was involved in completing the degree, and whether or not I had the moxie to finish. The “end in mind” wasn’t ambiguous, but how to get there was. I naively launched into the unknown and five years later had the post nominal.

Perhaps I’m describing the difference between an explorer (someone who starts without the end in mind) and a pioneer (someone starts with the end in mind). An explorer has a general goal (ex. discover the new world) but is not sure how to get there; he has a compass but no map. A pioneer follows the path forged by the explorer (he has an end in mind), and may even improve the process. An explorer has a high tolerance for risk—failure is an option; for a pioneer, less so.

I’m not advocating that you identify exclusively with one approach or the other. In the course of life you’ll probably engage in both. I have found it helpful to recognize which role I’m adopting because the demands are different.

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