For the past several months, I’ve been working on my second book. The working title is “Automatic Habits.” Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of the draft chapters with you. Please give me feedback. The more, the better! What are your thoughts about the format? What about the habits or the writing? What can I do to make it better? Please use the comments section. I’ll incorporate as many as I can into the finished work.
Bill sighed. He’d been looking at the ever increasing list of past-due performance appraisals for days. Unfortunately, he just couldn’t bring himself to start. By his reckoning, he now had eight appraisals that were overdue and he knew Mary, his supervisor, would be asking him about them during his next one-on-one.
Performance appraisals were probably the least favorite part of his job. Because of the way his company worked, most were due at the same time. Further most of his staff were doing very well. This meant, he had to come up with twelve different ways to say the same thing.
To make matters worse, the more he thought about it the more he believed the formal appraisals weren’t effective at all. While some of the companies he’d worked for linked performance appraisal outcomes to raises or promotions, his current organization didn’t. In fact, they had a strict policy against pay for performance. This often translated to little or no incentive for employees to improve should any growth opportunities be identified.
That reminded him of the last performance appraisal he’d done for Kimberly. She was doing okay, but not great. This was frustrating because she was probably the smartest person on the team. Unfortunately, rather than use her knowledge and skills to be more productive, she spent most of her energy looking for loopholes in the employee policy manual. The whole team knew she needed to make improvements but every time he tried to suggest anything she would debate each point as if defending a doctoral thesis. It was exhausting and usually brought about no lasting change. In fact, after the last conversation her behavior and productivity actually got worse as if she were trying to teach him a lesson.
Bill sighed again, and looked at the clock. Dang! He’d just wasted forty-five minutes brooding about getting the appraisals and was going to be late for his next meeting. He grabbed his iPAD and portfolio and headed out the door.
Two days later, he found himself sitting across from Mary.
“Bill, I’ve noticed you are way behind on your performance appraisals. In looking over the past-due list, it looks the same as the last time we met. Is the report right?”
Bill grimaced. “Sorry. It is. So many other things have come up that I just haven’t been able to get them done. I promise I’ll get to them.”
Mary looked up from her tablet and put down her pencil. “Bill, you said the same thing last week, too. Is something wrong?”
Bill paused, not sure how to continue. He and Mary got along well. He considered her the best manager he’d ever had. She was very supportive and understanding. On several occasions she had coached and mentored him through some tough times. On the other hand she demanded performance and results. Could he tell her he was struggling to even start his appraisals?
He swallowed hard and decided to give it a shot. “I’m not quite sure how to say this,” he started. “I’m really struggling to even start. Don’t get me wrong. I love discussing performance with my staff and I regularly provide both constructive and congratulatory feedback. But, when it comes to writing their annual appraisal, I get stuck. Further, because of the disconnect between pay and performance, I’m struggling to prioritize them above much of my other work. Do you have any suggestions?”
Mary sat back, obviously thinking. “Well, I do have a couple of ideas, but I’d rather learn a bit more from you, first. What have you tried, to date?”
“Last week, I scheduled myself an hour to work on Kimberly’s appraisal. I put it on my list first thing, hoping that tackling it first would make it a little easier.”
“How did that go?” asked Mary.
“To be honest, it didn’t. I had just opened up her appraisal when Rob stopped by with a question. Before I knew it, we had spent all morning solving his problem. That afternoon was filled with meetings and I wasn’t able to get back to her appraisal.”
Mary nodded. “Hmmm… Anything else?”
“Sure, a couple days later, I decided to take my laptop to the cafeteria and see what I could get done there. I got set up, opened up Kimberly’s appraisal and stared at it for a few minutes. Nothing useful was coming, and I got frustrated. So, instead of staring at the page for another few minutes, I decided to work on that proposal we talked about. To be honest, I’ve gotten it almost complete. I should have it to you by tomorrow.”
Mary smiled. “Do you mind if I give you a little feedback?”
“Not at all, please do.”
She took a breath. “I think you’re making these appraisals harder than they need to be. For some reason, you’ve decided they are going to be hard and are consciously or unconsciously avoiding them.”
Bill shook his head. “I have to admit that I find doing the appraisals unpleasant. But, how does knowing that help?”
“Well, it doesn’t, really. But, I have a technique for times when I don’t want to do something. It might help you. Would you like to know what it is?”
Bill smiled nervously, not knowing what was coming. “Sure.”
Mary nodded. “Well. I know that I can do just about anything, no matter how unpleasant, for ten minutes. So, if I think something is going to be hard or unpleasant, I set a timer for ten minutes and work as hard and as fast as I can until the timer goes off. Then, I’ll take a moment and decide to either keep going or stop. If things are going well, I give myself ten more minutes. If they are going badly, I stop.”
Bill laughed. “That’s it? How does that work for you?”
Mary smiled. “Well, I can tell you that I used to have the same problem with performance appraisals as you. Now, I’m often done with them early. To tell the truth, with many of these jobs, getting started is the hard part. Once started the work often ends up being pretty easy.
“Tell you what, why don’t you try this? Before our next meeting, I’d like for you to spend ten minutes on five of your performance appraisals. Set a timer. During that ten minutes try to fill out as many of the sections as possible. Don’t think too hard, just do it. Then let me know what happens. Are you game to try it?”
Bill was skeptical, but what did he have to lose? He smiled. “Okay. I’ll try it.”
This habit is based upon a well-known strategy called the Pomodoro technique. You can find more about the Pomodoro technique at http://pomodorotechnique.com. While Pomodoro is designed to help you get work done by using your natural work/focus/rest cycles, the 10 minute habit is designed to help you break through the inertia for tasks you’ve been putting off.
To get started, identify a task you’ve been putting off. Gather the things you need so that you won’t be distracted by tracking down information or materials. Set a timer for 10 minutes and promise yourself that when the timer goes off you will stop, take a micro-break, and consciously decide whether or not to keep working.
If you decide to keep working, choose another small chunk of time, reset the timer and get back to work. Repeat the process until you either finish the task or decide to quit.
If you complete the task, mark it off your list. Pat yourself on the back and either take a break or move to the next thing on your to-do list.
If you don’t complete the task, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, celebrate the work you were able to accomplish, find a way to mark your progress, put the materials away, and start your next task.
Here are a couple of tips to make this habit even more successful.
First, use a timer with a tone of some sort. With a clock you can get distracted by trying to keep track of the time. With a timer, you can simply start it and work until the chime. I use my phone and turn it over so I can’t tell how much time has elapsed.
Second, keep a pad of paper and a writing instrument nearby. If a thought distracts you, take a moment to write it down. Then, let it go and get back to your 10 minute task.
Third, organize your workspace so that email, phones, pagers, or applications with alerts and automatic messages don’t disturb you. Doing this for a whole day might be hard but 10 minutes should be relatively easy.
Finally, make it a game. Challenge yourself to complete as much work as you can before the timer sounds. If you are like me, you will find that, over time, you get quite good at completing things quickly.
Like Bill, I used to struggle to get my performance appraisals done on time. Now, I put one appraisal on my to-do list per week. Then, I make certain to work on it first thing in the morning. Finally, I promise myself that I will work on each appraisal for only 10 minutes. After the first 10 minutes, I take a break and decide if I want to continue for another five or 10 minutes.
Often, after the first 10 minutes I’m on a roll so I keep working. The funny thing is, since I’m only doing one at a time, it rarely takes me more than a couple of days to finish a draft appraisal. Even when it does, I’m still making regular progress. The result is that I’ve been completely caught up for over two years!
This habit has been so successful for me that I use it for planning, too. Any time something comes up that seems like it will take more than an hour to accomplish I set a timer for 10 minutes and plan my strategy. It’s been a huge help.
- Find a task you’ve been putting off, but really needs to get done.
- Promise yourself you will only work on it for 10 minutes.
- Spend two minutes gathering all the materials you think you’ll need, including a timer.
- Set your timer for ten minutes.
- Focus totally on that one task until the timer sounds. Work without interruptions and try to complete as much as you can. Worry about quantity rather than quality.
- If something is interrupting you, write it down on a separate piece of paper and promise yourself to follow up after the session is done.
- When the timer sounds, take a deep breath and decide if you are going to stop working or keep working.
- Lather, rinse, repeat.
- Before you know it, all those yucky tasks will have disappeared.