Sometimes I just work stupid. Last week I was trying to do too many things at the same time and a funny thing happened. computer phone

I was trying to coordinate a phone conference with one of our vendors, who I’ll call Sally, and our wires got crossed.  Sally sent me an e-mail asking what number she should use to call me. I wrote an answer to her while speaking with someone else and I was clearly distracted. Sally didn’t call me on time, which surprised me because she is very prompt. After another e-mail exchange I called her and we connected.

Sally told me she thought she called my home number. So I checked my sent e-mail and discovered that instead of writing one of my work numbers I had typed my home phone number. A simple mistake, right? But the story does not end there.

Our home phone is through Comcast and we use their voice to e-mail transcription feature. When my call ended I noticed I had a text from Patti, my wife, who told me I had an interesting voice mail at home I might want to check-out.

Here is the e-mail transcription of that voice message – “Hi Steve its Sally from XYZ. I think I got the right number. I love you. Give me a call back at ___________. It’s about 1:30. So thanks so much bye bye.”

The transcribed message was exactly the same as the voice mail except the computer translated Sally’s nervous laughter after saying “I think I got the right number” to “I love you.” Fascinating. Good thing Patti is a good sport or this mistake could have had an interesting side effect!

Had I not been working stupid, this whole situation could have been avoided.

This week, looking for inspiration on how to work smarter, I read two things. First, Charles Duhigg’s interesting book Smarter, Faster, Better – The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business and James Claar’s article  All Models Are Wrong, Some Are Useful: How to Make Decisions in an Imperfect World.Smarter Faster

Here are five takeaways or tips that were helpful to me.

  1. Getting Started – Motivation. Some days we have so many things to get done we have trouble starting. In Duhigg’s book, which is based on interviews with hundreds of successful people, he reminds us that motivation gets triggered when a person recognizes why a task or action is important and she or he can take control.

As an example Duhigg used a task he often procrastinates – responding to e-mails that require his action. Sound familiar? First he schedules time to do e-mail, usually one hour because that is the maximum time he can attentively do this task. Then for each e-mail he decides whether it is important and tries to tell himself why. Next he drafts a one sentence response that includes a decisive statement. This gives him a sense of taking control. Finally, he goes back to each e-mail in order of his importance priority and completes the e-mail and sends. When the hour is up, he stops. Tomorrow or later that day he will finish lower importance e-mails.

For example, one e-mail from a respected colleague was asking Duhigg to attend a two-hour meeting that wouldn’t fit Duhigg’s schedule. His one sentence that got the draft response started was, “I can attend, but I have to leave after 20 minutes.” Duhigg had made a decision and taken control. This process helped him get started on the e-mail project.

2. Two-Minute Rule. James Claar writes “If something takes less than two minutes, do it now. The goal of this rule is to help you stop procrastinating and take action.” Great advice.

3. The Seinfeld Strategy. Claar also wrote about advice Seinfeld gave a young comic about how to improve his joke telling. The advice was “write jokes every day.” Then Seinfeld told the comic to go out and get one of those calendars that had all the days and months of a year on one sheet of paper. Take a red marker and put an “X” through the date on the calendar after you had written jokes that day. Then Seinfeld said something like, “Your goal is to start a chain of Xs you won’t want to break. This will motivate you to create many days in a row and your skill will get better every day.” Great advice to any of us trying to improve something, do it every day.

4. Goal Setting with Larger Tasks. Duhigg does a great job showing us how to get started on and applying SMART goal techniques to larger tasks or projects. Before you start you need to have a clear overarching or “stretch goal”, as Duhigg calls them. Then start the project by having a “stretch goal” for the first week that fits the SMART goal model. (Smart Goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and has clear Timeline)

As an example, let’s use one that Ryan, my colleague, might encounter in our Company. The big stretch goal could be – “Begin Providing Placement Services in the State of New Jersey by June 30, 2017.”

Specific Week One Goal – By Friday review New Jersey regulations and determine stages to get approvals and referrals.

Measurable Tasks Download and skim regulations; list all departments and contacts we will need to connect with; then write down clear stages for completing the project.

Helpful actions to make this Achievable – Block-off one hour each day in a quiet place with internet access and printer availability. Turn-off phone or leave phone in car.

Realistic – On Monday plan to use the time slot from 9 to 10 and focus on finding regulations and departments that cover our services.

Timeline – If I have trouble finding regulations, locate one key departmental contact and call person on Tuesday.

  1. How to Focus when distractions are everywhere. Using the remarkable and focused behavior around the averted Qantas plane disaster, Duhigg teaches us to build mental models of what we expect to see or happen and what distractions might develop and how we will deal with them. For each goal he suggests these six questions and actions. I will use my previous goal to help us think through the steps.

What will happen first? I’ll compile a list of New Jersey Departments that need placement services.

What distractions are likely to happen? There will be e-mails and phone calls and text messages waiting.

How will you handle these distractions? I won’t check these messages until 10AM on Monday

How will you know you’ve succeeded? I have a list of departments, contact names, phone numbers, and e-mails listed.

What is necessary for success? I’ll need a cup of hot coffee next to me so I won’t need to get up from my table.

What will I do next? I will develop a specific call / e-mail list for contact on Tuesday.

I hope these five tips are helpful to you. One thing I learned through reading all these pieces is I need not to have e-mail on all the time – I need to schedule it. Perhaps this will help me work smarter, not stupid. But who knows, I seem to get dumber every day!

In the next two weeks I will write about some interesting things happening at Google and the importance of having “grit” as you approach work and life.