There are 100 things on your mental To-Do list. There are daily duties (like email and office time) and pre-scheduled stuff (like classes and committee meetings). But what still remains at the end of the day are the things that are easy to put off because they don’t have hard or immediate deadlines – things like writing an intro to a paper, submitting an IRB proposal, drafting a grant, completing some analysis tables, and so on. At the end of the year, having finished all of these might be what makes the difference between an exceptional year and another “OK” one.
But these projects are also the easiest things to put off or to only push ahead 1 inch each week. If you push 100 projects ahead 1 inch each week, you’ve made 100 inches of progress at the end of the week, but your desk is still full and you’re feeling frustratingly resigned to always be behind. This is an incremental approach.
A different approach would be to push a 50-inch project ahead until it is finished and falls off the desk; then you could push a 40-inch project ahead until it falls off; and then you can spend the last of your time and energy pushing a small 10-inch project off your desk. This is the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach.
Both approaches take 100-inches of work. However, the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach changes how you think and feel. You still have 97 things left to do, but you can see you made tangible progress. For about 12 years, I tried a number of different systems to do this – to finish up what was most important for the week. Each of them eventually ended up being too complicated or too constraining for me to stick with.
Eventually I stopped looking for a magic system. Instead, at the end of every week, I simply listed the projects or project pieces I was most grateful to have totally finished. Super simple. It kept me focused on finishing things, and it gave me a specific direction for next week (the next things to finish). It’s since evolved into something I call a “3-3-3 Weekly Recap.”
Here’s how a 3-3-3 Weekly Recap works. Every Friday I write down the 3 biggest things I finished that week (“Done”), the 3 things I want to finish next week (“Doing”), and 3 things I’m waiting for (“Waiting for”). This ends up being a record of what I did that week, a plan for what to focus on next week, and a reminder of what I need to follow up on. It helps keep me accountable to myself, and it keeps me focused on finishing 3 big things instead of 100 little things. Here’s an example of one that’s been scribbled in a notebook at the end of last week:
Even though you’d be writing this just for yourself, it might improve your game. It focuses you for the week, it gives you a plan for next week, and it prompts you to follow-up on things you kind of forgot you were waiting for.
Sometimes I do it in a notebook and sometimes I type it and send it to myself as an email. It doesn’t matter the form it’s in or if you ever look back at it (I don’t), it still works. I’ve shared this with people in academia, business, and government. Although it works for most people who try it, it works best for academics who manage their own time and for managers who are supervising others. They say it helps to keep the focus on moving forward instead of either simply drifting through the details of the day or being thrown off course by a new gust of wind.
If you work with PhD students or Postdocs, it could help them develop a “Finish it up” mentality, instead of a “Polish this for 3 years until it's perfect” mentality. It’s also useful as a starting point for 1-on-1 weekly meetings. If they get in the habit of emailing their 3-3-3 Recap to you each Friday, you can share any feedback and perhaps help speed up whatever it is they are waiting for. Especially if it’s something on your desk. Ouch.
Good luck in pushing 3 To-Dos off your desk and getting things done. I hope you find this helps.
A former summer intern was over with her PhD-student husband a while back and the issue of choosing the best advisor came up between dinner and a game of Pandemic. He asked whether a person should choose an advisor who's the most famous person in the department or whether you should instead choose the one who likes you the most, even if they aren't well known.
Picking the hottest, most famous person in a field is one way to pick an adviser. After all what could go wrong?
Case Study #1. A number of years ago at a different university, I had a good friend who was starting her PhD in environmental engineering over a second time. Her first go-around had been after she chose the “most famous” person in her field at the most famous school in her field as her adviser. She hated it, hated the school, and ended up leaving with what she called “a consolation Master’s degree.” She said her famous adviser had never around, never cared about her, never thought she was smart enough or working hard enough, never liked her ideas, and that he played favorites with the more advanced students.
Case Study #2. I too had originally chosen the “most famous” person in my field, and things didn’t work out. As a 3rd year PhD student I thought I was going on the job market. Instead I was told my funding was being eliminated, and that I had 4 months to find a new dissertation adviser, a new dissertation topic, and to defend that topic, or I would be asked to leave the program (probably without the consolation Masters).
One conversation rescued me from having to start a PhD a second time a different school. Three shell-shocked days after being blind-sided, I was talking to a friend who was a professor in the medical school. I told him what had happened and about my confusion. He said, “If I knew you were going through this, I would have told you what I tell my graduate students. ‘When it comes to picking a thesis committee, you pick your best friend to be your thesis adviser, your favorite uncle to be one committee member, and your favorite cousin to be your other.’”
This is a radically different approach than what I had used, what the environmental engineer had used, and what Jack was using. The advice was to “Pick your best friend to be your advisor.” Not “the most famous” person in the department. Not even the person whose research interests are most like yours. Pick the person who likes and believes in you and your best interests. You might not be as “hot” when you graduate, but you might be a lot more likely to graduate in the first place.
I’ve been thinking about this because this past weekend I looked up “Jack” to see if he wanted to take a dissertation break come over and meet some of my grad students. On his department’s website, I noticed that he was about the only 3rd year student who wasn’t a formal part of any of the research groups in the Lab of his “famous advisor.” That was like me. Fortunately, I was given a second chance.
Picking a star-spangled dissertation or thesis committee that you think will make you “hot” on the job market is a great strategy for Super-Duperstars. For the other 90% of us, we should pick one that will help us graduate.
No professional guitar player has ever called me to do an interview. Until now. It’s a sign of how desperate COVID has made people for entertainment.
Mike Godette is a NYC guitar player who also has a cool video podcast where he interviews people who have “day gigs” but who play music on the side. After seeing my cameo in the movie “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” he learned I played saxophone in some rock cover bands. His video podcasts dish out a diet of great guitar player interviews, and he must have thought a sucky sax player would give it some spice.
He’s an interesting interviewer, and he posted this podcast of me. After listening to it, I realized he pulled a lot of crazy stories out of me I wouldn’t have otherwise told. Like . . .
You might have zero interest in eighth-notes, Led Zeppelin, or playing funk music on an Amsterdam canal boat bar, but you probably do have an interest in re-creation – in feeling happier.
Webster's definition of the word “recreation” says “The things you do to screw around when you’re not working.” Instead, it should be hyphenated it as “re-creation:” Things you do to re-create yourself so you have bounce in your step the next day.
Endless types of hobbies can re-create: Gardening, DIY, crafts, photography, even sucking on the saxophone. COVID gives us that chance to recapture these – or find new ones: time travel, taxidermy, witchcraft . . . whatever.
Unfortunately, most of what people do doesn’t re-create them. Look at most kids. They spend endless free time texting, tic-tocking, surfing, or watching TV. Granted, these things are amusing and effortless ways to kill time until they can fall asleep again, but they don’t re-create. They’re no bouncier the next day when they wake up.
We have surprising amounts of time to re-create hobbies that re-create us. What did you once like to do that you could dust off and try again? It’s easy to think we don’t have the time and energy to do it again or to pick up something new. What’s funny is that once you start messing with a hobby, all of this energy magically reappears.
After doing this interview a couple weeks ago, I committed to myself to play my sax at least 20 minutes every night. Now my family has to drag me to bed. It's the only way they can prevent hearing loss and get some sleep.
What’s a new hobby you’d like to try or an old one you’d like to dust off for re-creation?
Today’s the 30th anniversary of the day when the University Registrar weighed five copies of my signed dissertation, stamped it with a red smiley face, and said, “Congratulations, Dr. Wansink.” Within 20 minutes I was shifting my Mercury Lynx into 5th gear on the 3000 mile, unairconditioned, cross-country drive to start teaching the next Tuesday. All I needed was a t-shirt that said “Yesterday I couldn’t even spell ‘Perfessor,’ and today I are one.”
I annually celebrate this signature day with good steak, good wine, and having good friends over for a dinner party. I also celebrate it by writing down the best lessons I learned over the past year. Usually, they're the lessons I learned the hard way.
Over 30 years, I’ve written down a ton of annual lessons in 30 different notebooks. Some is advice people gave me, and some is based on my own experience – things that are useful to me and might be useful to students and friends. Maybe it will give them a boost or save them some pain.
In the spirit of counting to 30 today, here’s a sample of some of these that might be a boost or save a stumble
Advice to Graduate Students
1. “The ‘P’ in PhD stands for Perseverance.” – The smartest and most talented people in PhD programs aren’t always the ones who graduate.
2. “It’s an N-period game.” When I had to find a new advisor and defend a new dissertation proposal with four months notice, the game theory economist who gave me this advice was implying that there are a lot of second and third chances in academia as long as you keep swinging. Related to this . . .
3. “Choose your best friend as your advisor.” I heard this from a Med School professor friend who then said “And choose your older brother to be your second committee member, and choose your favorite uncle to be your third.” We tend to choose our dissertation committee based on who’s most famous. Consider which professors most want you to graduate. [Read more]
4. Be a Visiting Professor. Suppose don’t get a good offer when you graduate from your PhD program (or you get turned down for tenure). If you “settle” for a tenure-track at a school you’re not crazy about, you’ll be perceptually anchored to that type of school by both you and by others. Being a 1- or 2-year visiting professor keeps you from getting anchored, gives you more time to strengthen your vita, and lets you swing again.
5. Do solution-focused research. Developing theory is prestigious, but coming up with a solution to an everyday problem is super gratifying. (Again, this is totally my personal preference and advice to myself.) [Read more]
6. Go to a different conference outside your field every year. Even if it’s an on-campus mini-conference in anthropology, you’ll learn a lot and it will keep you humble.
7. Leave town for your sabbatical. Moving is a hassle and there are 100 great reasons why you should spend your sabbatical at home (your spouse’s job, your kids, your doggy, your home, and so on). But I’ve never know anyone who went away who didn’t claim it was a career highlight. I’ve also never known anyone who spent their sabbatical at home and remembered anything about it two years later.
8. Writing a book is useful. Almost all academic authors are disappointed their books aren't cited more or sell more. Still, writing a book is worth it because it motivates you to organize, distill, and share what you understand about your topic, and they clarify the gaps you might want to fill in next.
9. A Leave-of-Absence is Transforming. Again, this is about moving away and clearing your head. Leaving town to take a 1- or 2-year paid leave of absence is incredibly revitalizing to every single person I've known. It either gives you amazing confidence that you can hugely succeed at something else, or it gives you amazing appreciation for academia. Maybe both.
10. Being fired is a temporary setback. Whether you don’t get tenure or whether something else in your career goes haywire, they say life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond. If things are looking too dark, contact me and I’ll help you, or find you some help.
11. Never retire. One of the great beauties of academia is you can always keep doing the parts of it you love most -- even if you don't go into work. (Here are some ideas on doing it without having later regrets.)
12. 90% of reviewers are great coaches. Reviewers have either made my papers better or they‘ve made me a better researcher. If it wasn’t for reviewers, some of my papers would have never been read by anyone other than me.
13. Create a Best Practices Guide for writing journal articles. – Find 30-40 favorite papers written by other researchers and list out the different strategies, tactics, and words you see them use (perhaps unconsciously) in their abstract, their opening-line, their first paragraph, their introduction, their background, theory section, tables, and so forth. When you’re finished distilling this, you’ll have a Best Practices guide that’s personalized to what you like in a paper and will be your writing guide. When I did this, my acceptance rate almost tripled. Also, papers became a lot easier and more fun for me to write.
14. Use a 2-2-2 strategy to unclog your pipeline. If a manuscript gets desk-rejected, I try to send it to the next journal within 2 days. If it gets conditionally accepted, I revise it and send it back within 2 weeks. If it gets a revise-and-resubmit that doesn’t require any additional studies, I send it back within 2 months.
15. Field studies are worth the hassle. They’re messy, hard to coordinate, inefficient, error-riddled, and harder to publish than lab studies. Still, they are usually much more memorable and impactful.
16. “Ideas are cheap; but execution is what pays.” Even a mediocre brainstorming session will generate 3-4 publishable ideas, and almost none will be followed up on. Edison said something like “Publishing in the Journal of [insert favorite journal here] is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Executing is what matters.
17. “You can either read a lot or you can write a lot, but you can't do both.”
18. "Write the first two hours of every day." The guy who told me this, pretty much said it like a command: no email, no breakfast, no class stuff. Before breakfast and before the kids wake up. It sets a productivity vibe for the whole day. [Read more]
19. Write down the 3 specific things you'll finish each day. Better to have three things completed than 20 things pushed ahead an inch. [Read more]
20. "Imagine your brother, daughter, or younger self in the front row of your class." This will lead you to give your class sessions more context and more “So what?” It’s also help you cut loose a bit and give the class more punch, fun, and humor.
21. "Teach for where a student will be in 10 years." The guy who told me this is a legend. The idea is to try to get students to visualize their most successful self in 10 years. If we can teach to that ten-years-from-now person, we’ll be teaching them something they couldn’t just learn from an online class.
22. Education is a buffet; be something unique. Some courses are meaty and some are refreshing; some professors are fiery and others are more chill. You don't need to be like everyone else. By being your best genuine, earnest self, and you’ll be adding variety to their educational buffet.
23. Hold class previews for participation classes. Non-native English speakers and shy students have a hard time participating in class, but class previews help them. An hour before each class, I hold a class preview and we briefly discuss the day's discussion questions ahead of time. Anyone’s welcome to show up. [Read more]
24. Ask good students who the “must-take” teachers are. See if you can sit in on a couple of their class sessions (most are flattered and only 2 ever turned me down). Take notes about the good teaching ideas you can use.
25. “Don’t become a parody of yourself.” Good teachers slowly start to exaggerate the things they’re good at, and they eventually take it over the top and become a parody of themselves. Dramatic teachers will overfocus on drama. Entertaining teachers will overfocus on entertainment. Cool professors teachers will overfocus on coolness, and so on. [Read more]
Fun, People, and Things
26. “Fun people accidently say stupid things. Don’t beat yourself up.” Some academics over-edit everything they say before they speak. If you're more spontaneous, you won’t be happy if you try too hard to change.
27. Dress-up and show-up early for Meetings. This is one way to show respect for the profession and for my colleagues. (Again, this is totally my advice to myself.) Like a US Marine Colonel once told me, "Early is on time. On time is late."
28. Don’t apologize for who I am or hide from it. I’ve had senior colleagues give me well-meaning advice that I should never mention to anyone that I shop at Walmart, play sax in a rock band, go to church, host board game nights, do stand-up comedy, or go thrifting. What you love doing isn’t worth being self-conscious over. If those things are that big of a deal at your school, you’d probably be happier at a different school anyway. [Read more]
29. The more 1-on-1 fun stuff I do with different colleagues outside of work, the more I love my job. The crazier the stuff we do, the more we both seem to love it and remember it.
30. “Max out your TIAA-CREF retirement contribution. Then add more.” The guy who told me this was a retired English professor -- who had two very nice homes. It’s not flashy or cool to save money instead of spending it, but no one over 50 regrets having done so.
Having an academic mind is a Blurse. It's both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because we are almost always looking for better ways to learn or to improve. It's a curse because we're not always very open to what others have found. We feel we have to do it ourselves, or discover it ourselves. If we hear something from someone else, we might think it doesn't apply or that we're the exception.
Ten of the lessons I mentioned are advice someone gave to me. The main reason these stuck with me was because I had just finished really screwed up doing it My Way:
• #3 only registered when I was told I was being kicked out of the PhD program
• #18 was a great idea only after I had just been fired for not publishing enough
• #20-21 were brilliant the day I got the second lowest teaching evaluations in the school
• #26 resonated only after I'd been hissed at in class after making an unfunny comment
Hopefully these might give you a boost or save a stumble. Maybe you might even come up with your own list to share with your students and friends.
Being a scholar and an academic is an unbelievably great calling. Good luck having many, many great years, each more amazing than the one before. Let me know how I can help.
When you ask people what they’re most proud of, people usually mention about the same types of things: their kids, a career accomplishment, or how they lived their life.
But it’s an unfair question that totally catches people off guard and they usually blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. It’s like when you see somebody blindsided on a talk show by being asked, “What’s the funniest, most hilarious thing that ever happened to you?” or “What’s the most amazing, incredible, phenomenal experience you’ve ever had?” You’re just not going to get the real answer with 1.2 seconds of thought. But what’s interesting is when people voluntarily say what they’re proud of or what their most amazing, incredible, phenomenal experience was. When they volunteer this out of the blue, it means they’ve given it a lot of thought.
There’s an famous man at the University of Chicago and who’s a legend in academia in the area of how people make decisions. Let’s call him Adam. We became friends and during a late dinner Chicago a couple years ago, our conversation turned to parents. Although Adam’s parents had passed away long ago, he said – out of the blue – “What I’m most proud of in all my life, is how I was there for my parents in their later years.”
What? That’s what he’s most proud of? I don’t even know what that means.
Here’s a guy who’s published libraries of stuff, whose work has changed at least one industry, who has two successful kids, and what he’s most proud of is “how I was there for my parents in their later years”? This wasn’t a “tell me the funniest thing that ever happened to you” kind of answer. He had clearly thought about this a lot.
Taking care of aging parents is particularly very emotionally hard. It’s good if you can see it as a blessing, but even a saint can’t see it as a blessing day after day while they are trying to juggle the rest of their life. Having both a wife and brother who do this daily, I can see the grinding burden it can have even on very strong people.
What’s interesting about Adam’s perspective is that it is very forward looking. It says “Regardless of how I feel today, how will I look back on this moment in the future?” If the answer is “With great pride in how I handled it,” that’s powerful to keep in mind. It even goes beyond “no regrets” thinking.
Even if our parents might have passed, like my father did last month, we still have a second chance with lots of others. We've got a change with our spouse, our kids, and for old friends and unmet friends.
My dear Dad passed away on June 2, 2020. He was one of the greatest generation -- selfless, modest, team-focused, honest, hard-working, and tireless.
He had 91 years of great health and good humor, followed by a couple stinker years due to him breaking his hip the day after my Mom died. Still had his sense of humor to the end.
I keep thinking that his last 18 months would have been easier had we moved him in to live with us. My wife wanted to, but I thought there were too many uncertainties. Instead, we moved him into assisted living about a mile from my brother, who could then see him most days, and where we would travel the 10 hours down to see him every couple months. Thinking back, if he had moved in with us, he might not have lived longer, but I think he would have been happier.
When a heroic, single-surviving parent can no longer live by themselves, the decision about where they should go deserves a lot of heartfelt thought. Perhaps more than I gave it.
* * *
John Charles Wansink, 93, of Sioux City, Iowa, died on June 2, 2020, in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
John was born October 28, 1926, in Sanborn, Iowa, to Henry and Clara Wansink. After graduating from Sioux City East High School, he studied business at Morningside College, where he also lettered in football and basketball. He had a number of unusual experiences in his life, including working as a cowboy in Montana and playing basketball against the Harlem Globetrotters. After running his own business in his 20s, he went on to work on the production line at Metz Baking Company for over 30 years.
John married Naomi Fullerton on March 21, 1948. With their two sons, Brian, of Ithaca, New York, and Craig, of Virginia Beach, Virginia, for years they enjoyed trips to Montana, summer family camps, and Friday night Jeopardy games, complete with popcorn and M&Ms. John had an active mind and loved crossword puzzles, reading, and movies. He was a lifelong athlete, playing golf into his late 80s. Along with Naomi, he enjoyed both square dancing and volunteering at nonprofit agencies for over 20 years after he retired. For over 50 years, he was an active member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sioux City. For the last two years of his life, he was a proud member of Second Presbyterian Church in Norfolk, Virginia.
Those left to honor his memory include his sons, Craig (Nancy) and Brian (Jennifer), and five grandchildren, Katrina, Teddy, Audrey, Valerie, and Lieve.
John will be remembered as a good, decent, fair, thoughtful, and hard-working man. He was deeply loved. He will be deeply missed. Memories of him will be deeply treasured. Condolences may be expressed at www.candfservices.com.
This is a COVID adaption of a post from last year. It's about how to be productive, and given some of the oscillation in motivation that has been happening with homebound workers, it has a new relevance.
On a late afternoon about 20 years ago, I stepped into a slow elevator with my college’s most productive, famous, and taciturn senior professor. After 10 seconds of silence, I asked, “Did you publish anything yet today?” He stared at me for about 4 seconds and said, “The day’s not over.” Cool . . . very Clint Eastwood-like.
Most of us have some super-productive days and we have some bad days, but most lie in-between. If we could figure out what leads to great days, we might be able to trigger more of them in our life.
Think of the most recent “great day” you had. What made it great, and how did it start?
For about 20 years, every time somebody told me they had a great day, I’d ask “What made it great? How did it start out? About 50% of the time its greatness had to do with an external “good news” event like something great happening at work, great news from their kids or spouse, a nice surprise, or nice call or email from a grateful person or an old friend. The other 50% of the time, the reason for “greatness” was more “internal.” They had a super productive day, they finished a project or a bunch of errands, or they had a breakthrough solution to a problem or something they should do.
External successes are easy to celebrate with our friends. Internal successes are more unpredictable. What made today a great day and what sabotaged yesterday?
When people had great days, one reoccurring feature was that they started off great. There was no delay between when they got out of bed and when they Unleashed the Greatness. People said things like, “I just got started and seemed to get everything done,” or “I finished up this one thing and then just kept going.”
One of the most productive authors I've known said that got up six days a week at 6:30 and wrote from 7:00 to 9:00 without interruption. Then he kissed his wife good-bye and drove into school and worked there. When I asked how long he had done that he said, “Forever.”
About a year ago, I started toying with the idea that "Your first two hours set the tone for the whole day."
Think of your last mediocre day. Did it start out mediocre? That would also be consistent with this notion.
We can’t trigger every day to be great, but maybe we have more control than we think. If we focus on making our first two hours great, it might set the tone for the rest of the day.
What we need to decide is what we can we do in those first two hours after waking that would trigger an amazing day and what would sabotage it and make it mediocre. For me, it seems writing, exercise, prayer, or meditation are the good triggers, and it seems answering emails, reading the news, or surfing are the saboteurs.
Here’s to you having lots of amazing days.
Here's a repost from my "Academics Only" blog. It might also be of interest here.
In 2018, six of my research articles in JAMA-related journals were retracted. These retractions offer some useful lessons to scholars, and they also offer some useful next steps to those who want to publish eating behavior research in medical journals or in the social sciences.
These six different papers offer some topic-related roadmaps that could be useful. First, they were originally of interest to journals in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) network, and they would probably be of interest to other journals in medicine, behavioral economics, marketing, nutrition, psychology, health, and consumer behavior. Second, they each show what a finished paper might look like. They show the positioning, relevant background research, methodological approach, and relevance to clinical practice or to everyday life.
I think all of these topics are interesting and have every-day importance. This document provides a two-page template for each one that shows 1) An overview why it was done, 2) the abstract (or a summary if there was no abstract), 3) the reason it was retracted, 4) how it could be done differently, and 5) promising new research opportunities on the topic. Making specific hypotheses and testing them followed by open science principles will be the best next way forward on these topics.
Academia can be a tremendously rewarding career both you and for the people who benefit from you research. Best wishes in moving topics like these forward, and best wishes on a great career.
 A useful description of these principles can be found at Klein, O., Hardwicke, T. E., Aust, F., Breuer, J., Danielsson, H., Hofelich Mohr, Al, …. Frank, M. C. (2018). A Practical guide for transparency in psychological science. Collabra: Psychology, 4 (1), 20.
“Woo-hoo! I get to work from home!”
Before the coronavirus, a lot of companies were hesitant to let people work from home. “Working from home” rhymes too closely with “Shirking from home.” It includes surfing, posting, grazing, running errands, crushing Candy Crush, calling your brother “just because,” rereading online stories about the coronavirus, updating your LinkedIn resume, spacing out on conference calls, and telling your boss, “I’m still waiting for Bob to get it to me so I can work on it.”
But what if working from home looked different? What if working from home made you 13% more productive, made you feel more satisfied with your job, and made you half as likely to quit?
This is exactly what was found in a 2015 Stanford study of a large Chinese travel firm called CTrip. Researchers randomly split 249 call center employees from Shanghai into two groups. For nine months, half of them kept working at their desks as usual, and the other half were told to work from home four days a week (one day a week they came into the office). Then the researchers measured everything from the number of calls they made, to job satisfaction, to breaks taken, to sick days… everything but Facebook Likes and Candy Crush scores.
One conclusion: Working from home can make people more productive.
But wait. Before you try to sell the conference table on eBay, there’s a huge caveat from this study (aside from country and culture): These workers had very specific measures of productivity—phone calls per minute and the amount of time spent on the phone.
Whereas those in customer service, copywriting, or design might have very specific measures of productivity (dollars, calls, pages, or projects), other workers might have to deal with more collaboration and face-to-face meetings. For them, working at home can be challenging. It requires accountability, better work habits, and a general ability to get things done when there are roaring distractions all around.
Since working at home requires a discipline muscle that many of us need to strengthen, it’s easy to let our first days or weeks at home be structured by meetings and not our mission. That is, we might view the phone or web meetings on our calendar as the “Big rocks” of our day instead of seeing our biggest projects as our biggest rocks. After you conduct a weekly review of the projects that are most pressing, these suggestions might help.
• Identify the three biggest project tasks you need to complete each day
(not including meetings).
• Make a promise to complete these tasks and deliver results to another person
(boss or coworker).
• Check in for a follow-up after making the delivery.
This is the productivity side of working at home. But there’s another side to working at home that has been widely ignored. It’s the human side.
There’s a story of three people who find themselves stranded on an uncharted desert island. Sort of like Gilligan’s Island, but without commercials. After years of learning how to smoothly work together to survive, the trio one day finds a bottle with a genie in it. The genie grants each person a wish. The first wishes to be back home in California, and—poof—she’s gone. The second wishes to be reunited with his family in Texas, and—poof—he’s gone. The third person looks around the empty island and says to the genie, “You know, I miss my two friends. I wish they were back.”
Here’s the rest of the story about the Chinese workers.
After nine months of working at home, the study was over. The workers were told they could continue working from home four days a week or they could come back and grind it out in-office for the full five. Slightly more than half of these workers wanted to come back and work in the office. They reported they were too “lonely.”
There’s a human side to working at home. We can use VitalSmarts tools to strengthen our communication muscle and our productivity muscle, but we might still feel like something is missing.
Leaning in (versus spacing out) during meetings might help, and checking in or following up after finishing a project piece might help. But this human solution will need some personal thought and personal tailoring for each of us. If we’re feeling restless after 4 days at home, the human side is where we might want to look.
And maybe call your brother “just because.”
(This is the one version of the blog I wrote as the Executive Director of Research for VitalSmarts).
Congratulations. You’ve just been asked to assemble the smartest team in your organization. This will be the Einstein, Ninja, Go-To, Delta Team that will have to solve the toughest problems you face: How to increase growth by 70%, how to cut costs by 25%, how to rebrand the company, and what to do if the CEO’s spouse repeatedly staggers up to monopolize the Christmas Party Karaoke machine again next year.
Who would you choose to be on your Brainiac Committee? You could line everybody up by their IQ scores and pick the ones at the head of the line, or you could pick people who have a cool British-sounding accent, or you could pick that one person on the second floor who was a runner-up nominee for the Supreme Court. But according to an article in the journal Science, if you really want the smartest team that was going to make the best decisions, you should use a different approach.
The article dives deep into collective intelligence. The authors analyzed 699 people who were working in teams of two or five to solve a wide range of problems like brainstorming, moral judgements, and negotiation.
As it turned out, two things differentiated the teams that made the smartest decisions from the rest. First, teams where one or two people did most of the talking made less intelligent decisions than groups where everyone spoke up.
Second, teams with higher percentages of females made better, more effective decisions. They were more sensitive about getting input from everyone; they were better able to reach compromises, and they were generally more effective. This is consistent with an earlier 2006 study by Wellesley professor, Sumur Erkut, who showed that having two or more women on a corporate board brings “a collaborative leadership style that benefits boardroom dynamics by increasing listening, social support, and win-win problem solving.”
The research shows women are less polarizing, more collaborative, and more likely to reach a solution that makes everyone happy. The New York Times columnist, Bruce Feiler, recounts a story of having dinner with a Google executive who said, they always make sure there is more than one woman at a meeting. Their decision was based on this study. Turns out “diversity” isn’t just a fair word, it’s also a smart word.
The high-performing teams in the Science study tended to weigh options, encourage everyone to speak up, and to compromise better. These may be skills that come more naturally to some people than others, but they are all skills we can learn. In fact, they’re skills we’ve been teaching for 30 years. And yet, we just can’t assume they come naturally to everyone. Find ways to enable your people to learn the dialogue skills the enable everyone around the table—regardless of power, position, or authority—to speak up. And look carefully at the makeup of your teams. Be sure they are diverse enough, in gender and experience, to create a dynamic where thoughtful and smart decisions are made.
If you get it right, that diverse, dialogue-armed team of yours might also be able to solve that Christmas Party Karaoke problem. More karaoke, yes. More eggnog, no.
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I'm Brian Wansink, and I've been lucky to work with lots of wonderful researchers to discover insights on how to help people become more effective, happier, and more meaningfully connected with each other.
See what works for you, and share it with others.