August 2015

Exit the Wheel, Take the Escalator

2015-08-23T16:41:22+00:00 Categories: SandBlog|Tags: , |

You know that swift glide-y feeling you get when you walk on an escalator. You’re moving faster than you normally would with the same effort. That’s the feeling we all want when we work. Instead, it often feels more like running in an exercise wheel. We spend lots of energy and break a sweat; we are working hard. However, when we exit the wheel at the end of the day, we find ourselves in the same place we started.

Hamster Exercise Wheel


Many productivity tools help us manage what’s on our plate. I’ve looked through my books and have found a few techniques that – instead of simply moving things around on your plate – will help you reduce your serving size. These are… Create Focus, Purge Time Wasters, and Unplug Things.

Create Focus

Distractions and interruptions are part of our workday. The ringing phone, pinging e-mail, and pop-in visits from co-workers can break your work flow. To be a responsive employee most of these need to be answered… But not necessarily at that very instant.

Recovering from disruption inevitably will take you a few minutes to re-focus and pick-up where you left off. These breaks chip away at your productivity.

If you don’t have an office door to close to indicate, “do not disturb,” (most of us in cubicle-world don’t have that luxury), create a “sign” that indicates you’re in a flow and prefer not to be interrupted. This could literally be a sign, or perhaps you don headphones or pull a piece of tape across your cube entrance.

If your company has a culture where co-workers have been trained to expect an instant answer via phone or e-mail… Change your voicemail message and e-mail auto-reply to indicate that you’ll be able to get to their messages as soon as you take a break in your workflow.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you halt business, be irresponsible, or ignore important customer issues because you “have trouble focusing.” It is just that more times than not, if given a few more hours, questions get answered and resolutions get discovered. (How many times have you caught up with e-mail after being on vacation or out sick… and when following the e-mail chain see a problem in the morning find a solution by the afternoon?)

Adopt an “80/20 Hour.” Work without interruption for 48 minutes (80% of an hour), and then take a 12-minute break. This helps keep you focused for a solid period, and the break prevents burning out on what you’re working on. You can use that 12-minutes to address real issues, or simply get away from the computer screen and stretch your legs. I use a countdown timer on my computer to track my time. (It’s amazing how much you can get done when you don’t let yourself get distracted.)

Timothy Ferriss in his book The 4-Hour Work Week spends a good chunk of his book focusing on how to eliminate unnecessary and unproductive activities.

A few of his recommendations for gaining focus include…

  • Turn off the audible alert on e-mail.
  • Turn off the automatic send/receive.
  • “Check e-mail twice per day, once at 12:00 noon or just prior to lunch, and again at 4:00 p.m. 12 noon and 4 p.m. are times that ensure you will have the most responses from previously sent e-mail.”

One of the best suggestions I’ve ever heard…

  • “Never check e-mail first thing in the morning. Instead complete your most important task before 11:00 am to avoid using lunch or reading e-mail as a postponement excuse.”

Purge Time Wasters

Karen says of time wasters…

“If Time = Money. Time Wasters = Money Wasters.”

How true.

In his book The Obvious James Dale writes, “Most business takes too long.” He offers suggestions, including…

Eliminate the meetings that you can. If you have to meet, make it shorter. Taking longer to prepare meetings makes them shorter.

Write an agenda with…

  1. your objective,
  2. the points you need to make to accomplish it, and
  3. the questions you should answer.

Now cut out the parts everyone already knows, the parts people don’t need to know, and the summary. Set a time limit. (Never more than an hour, usually twenty minutes.) When time is up, stop talking.

UnPlug Things

The Operations team at Starbucks had a rule. Before you can add something new for the baristas to do in-store (new beverage, new program, etc.), first you had to unplug something. When trying to do too many things, there is a chance you may be able to do all of them, but probably not any of them well. UnPlugging is about providing quality, not quantity.

Karen Salmansohn in her book Ballsy suggests “Don’t Just Create To-Do Lists, Create Un-To-Do Lists.” She adds, that we need to UNDO…

  • Unimportant meetings
  • Unclear assignments
  • Energy-sapping people

These tips will certainly help you get off the exercise wheel and obtain that glidey escalator feeling. Your co-workers will pick up on your behavior… and while they may need to learn how to adjust to your new style, more than likely you’ll find them also adopting these work habits.

What other techniques work for you?

“How to Solve Problems” 1947-style

2015-08-05T14:47:12+00:00 Categories: SandBlog, solve|Tags: , , |

I recently discovered this 8th grade arithmetic book from 1947 on the bookshelves at my parents’ house. It’s got a great collection of images that match the mid-century art style of Idea Sandbox. In addition to the images, I found this piece on page 304 providing suggestions for students on problem solving.
Hot to Solve Problems

[click for larger view]


Before you try to work any problem, read it carefully to be sure you understand it; then follow this plan:

  1. Find what the problem tells.
  2. Find what the problem asks for.
  3. Decide what process or processes should be used and in what order.
  4. Estimate about what the answer should be.
  5. Solve the problem.
  6. Check your work to be sure you made no mistakes.
  7. Check your answer with your estimate and see if it is reasonable.

You can stop reading at this point if you’d like. But I want to go on a bit further and dig a little deeper. How may these math rules apply to everyday problem solving.

1. Find what the problem tells.

In investigating your problem, what do you know about it? What facts do you have? What can you be sure of? What are you perhaps taking as a given or an assumption that may not actually hold true. Gather the facts.

2. Find what the problem asks for.

What is missing? What are you solving for? In math you have an ‘eventual’ solution, for example you know you’re looking for the value of x. Business problems aren’t necessarily that straight forward. So, instead of an ‘eventual’ solution, what are your ‘potential’ solutions? What customers our groups do you need to consider?

3. Decide what process or processes should be used and in what order.

What marketing tools do you already have in place that may help solve your problem? What additional tools should you consider. In business, as in math… If you try to solve a problem using the wrong method you won’t end up with the intended (or correct) result.

4. Estimate about what the answer should be.

I like this step. Before you do any work, think about your intended outcome. An estimate will do two things for you (a) it helps you play out the situation as a dress rehearsal in your mind. (b) It allows you to estimate the outcome. To predict – based on what you know, and where you want to go – what your result will be.

5. Solve the problem.

Ah, working it out. I see this step as crafting your plan. Create the approach. Not launching something at this stage. First build the plan that answers what the problem asks, from step 2, using information, including what you know from step 1.

6. Check your work to be sure you made no mistakes.

Now make that plan bullet proof… weave it out of Kevlar. Did you account for all the things the problem is asking for? Have conditions or assumptions changed since you started building the solution?

7. Check your answer with your estimate and see if it is reasonable.

That makes perfect sense in math, but we don’t necessarily do that every time in business, do we? I like this step. Take the picture of the outcome you painted in step 4 and see if what you have come up with matches that expectation. Nice.

In the end, I see this list as a project management flow. These are key steps that help you ensure you’re not forgetting something important, and proceed with clear expectations in mind. I like it.

What is your reaction?

How To Think Big At Work (And Life)

2015-08-12T15:48:09+00:00 Categories: SandBlog|Tags: , |

“Where success is concerned, people are not measured in feet and inches, or pounds, or college degrees, or family background; they are measured by the size of their thinking. How big we think, determines the size of our accomplishments.”


Great words of wisdom from David Schwartz and his book The Magic Of Thinking Big. Written 50 years ago, (even before the era that the American TV show Mad Men takes place), his words are as powerful now as I’m sure they were back then.

A concept which supports “big thinking” is asset-based thinking. Asset-based thinking (or ABT for short) is a term coined by Kathy Cramer and Hank Wasiak in their book Change The Way You See Everything: Through Asset-Based Thinking.

ABT is about focusing attention on:

  • Opportunities rather than problems.
  • Strengths more than weaknesses.
  • What can be done instead of what can’t.

Some dismiss this kind of talk as wishful thinking. The difference between wishful thinking and big thinking/ABT is that…

  1. it isn’t about making wishes (sorry, no Fairy Godmothers),
    it is truly believing it is possible and,
  2. you take ACTION on the thinking. It’s more than positive thinking, it is positive action.

Returning to Schwartz’s book, he offers examples of “phrases which create small, negative, depressing thoughts” as well as the same situation, but “discussed in a big, positive way.”

Phrases Which Create
Small, Negative Mind Images
Phrases Which Create
Big, Positive Mind Images
It’s no use, we’re whipped. We’re not whipped yet. Let’s keep trying. Here’s a new angle.
I was in that business once and failed. Never again. I went broke but it was my own fault. I’m going to try again.
I’ve tried but the product won’t sell. People don’t want it. So far I’ve not been able to sell this product. But I know it is good and I’m going to find the formula that will put it over.
The market is saturated. Imagine, 75 percent of the potential has already been sold out. Better get out. Imagine, 25 percent of the market is still not sold. Count me in. This looks big!
Their orders have been small.
Cut them off.
Their orders have been small. Let’s map out a plan for selling them more of their needs.
Five years is too long a time to spend before I’ll get into the top ranks in your company. Count me out. Five years is not really a long time. Just think, that leaves me 30 years to serve at a high level.
Competition has all the advantage. How do you expect me to sell against them? Competition is strong, there is no denying that, but no one ever has all the advantages. Let’s put our heads together and figure out a way to beat them at their own game.
Nobody will ever want that product. In its present form, it may not be saleable, but let’s consider some modifications.
Let’s wait until a recession comes along, then buy stocks. Let’s invest now. Bet on prosperity, not depression.
I’m too young (old) for the job. Being young (old) is a distinct advantage.
It won’t work, let me prove it.
The image: Dark, gloom, disappointment, grief, failure.
It will work, let me prove it.
The image: Bright, hope, success, fun, victory.


I’m sure a few of these small, negative ideas you have heard (or said) at one point or another.

There are two ways to view a situation or condition. Using phrases that produce big, positive mental images allows you to “see not just what is, but what can be.”

I believe you will create big accomplishments.

Thwart The “Idea Killers” with BINGO

2015-08-10T17:06:43+00:00 Categories: SandBlog|

We’re all familiar with the game BINGO. Fill out the game card, get five in a row to win. Yell, “BINGO!”

Nearly as many of us are familiar with business jargon-based BINGO cards. These cards feature overused phrases and jargon we leverage and maximize like low-hanging fruit.

Old Bingo Cards

Online, you can find BS Bingo, Ad Agency Jargon Bingo, Social Media Jargon Buster, and many more…

Sure these are fun to scan… it is amazing to realize how much jargon we really do use… they also can serve as a helpful tool.

Killer Phrases

One key reason new and potentially innovative ideas don’t get implemented at companies is because skeptics and scaredy cats kill ideas when they’re first proposed. They use killer phrases like: “We’ve tried that before.” and “Yeah, but…”

Great ideas often sound “wild and crazy” at first. They can go against the established guidelines and the status quo. (And then there are those who are afraid the new idea will put them out of a job). To help give ideas a chance, I’ve created an Idea Killer BINGO card.


This will help you to identify when people use killer phrases that nip ideas in the bud before the idea has a chance to grow.

This card is meant to be used for awareness, rather than played as an actual BINGO game. If in a meeting you have more than one or two of these pop-up… Your team needs professional help. You should stop the meeting immediately because your team probably won’t create anything new and meaningful.*

Your next meeting should be about how your team needs to be less critical, pause before they pounce, and try to build on an idea – see where it can go… Instead of just killing it.

*I’d be happy to point you in the direction of several great books that offer tips on how to let ideas flow more freely.