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5 steps to reach focus and increase your availability to opportunities.

Have you ever heard of Hoshin? Hoshin means compass in japanese. It is the name of a lean manufacturing workshop focusing on adding value to turn around the value added / waste ratio from 30/70 to 70/30. Understanding the differences between value creation and waste is the heart of the lean approach. By removing waste lean creates agile workflows. Lean mindset transformed manufacturing, services and even led to the agile method of software development.

And lean lessons applied to personal development, can bring powerful benefits: clarity and dedication. It helped me in a few weeks to get rid of useless activities, freeing up time for what really matters. By self awareness and assertivity, I have reached availability.

You can do the same by applying the 5S method to your self management. 5S is a workplace setting method, used in manufacturing to ensure quality, safety and efficiency. It is named 5S from 5 Japanese words starting with an S: seiri (suppress), seiton (sort), seiso (shine), seiketsu (standardize), and shitsuke (sustain).

In 5 steps you can reach and maintain focus. This will increase your assertivity and at the same time make you more available to others and opportunities. This method will not prevent you from the hard work of clarifying your goals, and working on your priorities. It does not bring something new on the necessity of a weekly and daily tracking, but it is intended to give you some practical advice to embed these habits in your daily routines. In the end it is just about sharing experience and lessons learned. Puzzled ? Let’s start!

Step 1 (Seiri) Stop “checking emails” : Delete first, then read.

You may not be like me : upset being trapped into the depressing “checking email” activity: switching from one topic to another, being step by step pushed in a reactive mode, and ending my day having missed the Top 3 of my to do list, shifting it to the day after. But if you are, let me tell you that you can get out of this vicious circle almost overnight.

Beat Buhlmann call it the triple overload: 1-Data, (we are constantly overwhelmed with external sollicitations full of pictures, details and video) 2- Communication (80% of knowledge workers’ time is spent on meeting and checking emails) and 3-Cognitive (average time of work without interruption is 5 minutes!).

A very simple habit has changed this attention disorder almost overnight: Coping with an inbound flow of 80–100 message per day, I can still keep my mailbox empty, spending less than 1 hour daily, 15’ in the morning, 15’ after lunch and 15’ before leaving the office. I am only keeping the 5–10 key messages that require actions and reflect priority.

As a result, I am not anymore answering emails, I am writing them instead. I am now setting the agenda and leading the conversation, not letting others dictating their wishes into my schedule. The rule is very simple, but requires daily discipline : delete first, then read.

1-select All Unread, and untick and “star” those who need an action or an answer. Untick those needing only to be archived, without starring them. Then boldly DELETE: About one third of your emails will disappear.

2- select again All Unread and Unstarred, and untick only those you want to archive, without reading it (you are not in charge, but may need to get back to it). ARCHIVE (another third disappears)

3- you can now ACT on the few that are actually requesting an answer, and archive or delete them when it is done.

First time it took me more than one hour. But thanks to this deep work to empty my mailbox, I felt relieved and focused. Seeing my empty mailbox was creating a feeling of peace, like the contemplation of a blue sunny sky, as if all that noisy messages were clouds in my mind, preventing focus and clarity.

The next day, in less than 15 min, I free up my mailbox again and could dedicate the next 15 min to answering one message that requested thinking and quick research. In other words, I started to work, instead of just “checking emails”.

With this daily routine, I can visually check daily that the 10–15 starred emails requesting action are reflecting my priorities. To ensure the sky remains blue and sunny in my mind, I target to keep this inbox under 15.

This exercise made me aware that mailbox and calendar are only a visual display, a virtual environment that is expected to support our work organization. But it soon starts replacing the reality in our mind, when it is on the contrary a screen between our mind and the reality. How often do we hear people telling:”I have sent you an email to solve this problem”? We start believing that sending an email will impact the reality and finish confusing checking emails and actual work.

Busy schedule and full mailbox are preventing us from actually working. The problem is that we usually think the other way around, being confused between being busy and working. The next step will help you to make the difference between being busy and working.

Step 2 (Seiton): Sort your priorities, remove all but value creation.

There is no added value without transformation, and wastes are obstacles in your transformation process.

Focusing on added value will streamline your workflows and ensure speed and flexibility. It is by applying the lean principles that the software industry gave birth to agile development.

Setting priorities requires clarity on how you create value, and for whom you are creating value.

Value creation means producing a change that is desired and paid by the customer. Are you clear about who are your “customers”, what are their expectations and more generally what are you especially good at? If you don’t, you will have a hard time focusing on doing what you are uniquely gifted for. Discovering it is an entire domain of study, and actually a lifelong journey.

Start with a before / after comparison

Start with a simple but powerful approach: a straightforward Before / After comparison.

In any activity, ask yourself : What is the difference between the before and after? If you have trouble answering, there are good chances that you are wasting your (or someone else) time. In other word this activity is not worth doing. Get it out of your schedule and to do list.

Go and list all your meetings and activities, and clearly write down what is the difference before / after.

Go deeper with the 5 why?

If you do not find any difference, challenge the reason of this activity by finding out its root cause. The 5 why method has been designed by Toyota engineers to avoid being fooled by symptomas, instead of real problems, and it can be applied to personal development with great impact. You can apply it to any side of your own activities, and get clarity about its relevance to your goals.

Go even deeper by learning how to detect the 7 wastes

If you want to learn more about the 7 categories of waste, you can dive into the Toyota Way with Jeffrey K. Liker. This reminds that we are to challenge any activity, be it needed or not, to focus on added value. Some time wasted can be needed, temporarily, until a new solution surfaces.

Write down your priorities and goals.

At that stage, you can start writing down what are your priorities (short term, long term) and your goals. Derived from your goals are a series of short term (weekly, monthly) and midterms (quarterly, yearly) objectives. Keep these on a specific place, as it will be your compass to perform your schedule analysis in the next step.

Step 3 (Seiso): Shine your schedule.

Third step is about making a visual system so that you can detect easily any inconsistency between how you spend your time and what are your priorities.

Now that you have a list of goals, go back to your busy schedule and look for all activities that are not consistent with your unique value creation and lifelong purpose. Use a very simple color code (green, yellow, red) to assess the consistency of your calendar, so that you can react quickly and keep improving:

  • adding value activities in green;
  • waste (even unavoidable) in red;
  • So-so in yellow / orange;

Some activities are obvious, some are more tricky. For instance if you have management routine meetings, it can be rated as red, yellow or green, depending on the way you use it. Making a simple decision on what color you want to use is a good way to challenge your practice and focus on what creates value. Set your default colors for your calendar entries on yellow or orange (check your software settings but it is usually possible), as it is the neutral color. After the meeting happened, you can turn entries either in red or green, according to your assessment of the value added. Or reversely, now aware of the poor added value of some routine meetings, you can decide to turn them around and color them in green.

This simple color code provides you a visual system, where you can assess at a glance if your week is moving you toward your objectives and goals, or if you are led by others people agenda.

Ideal balance could be 50% added value, 30% not so clear, and 20% of red. Start doing the analysis on your last month calendar to have a baseline, and see how it progresses next month, week after week.

The power of this simple color code is not only to keep you on track, but mainly to compel you to make a decision on any entry of your calendar: what color should I use? Is it adding value, if not, how could I turn it into something adding value.

“A drone shot of colorful shipping containers in a terminal in Singapore” by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Step 4 (Seiketsu): Standardize your routines.

Associate the words “standard” and “routine” can make people scared, and may seem an insult to creative work. This may be seen as counter intuitive, but all experienced people will tell you it is the contrary. There is no result without investing time and energy on a daily basis. And this daily investment is named discipline. Standards and routines are shaping the discipline needed to achieve creative teamwork.

The confusion is between standards / routines and bureaucracy. But bureaucracy starts only when the purpose is lost into procedures. When standards become an end and not a tool, or when routines are taking all the time, instead of being set up as a barrier to protect time dedicated to creative work.

Standards are not and should never become bureaucracy. Standards and routine are enablers: their purpose is to create a common language, and to segregate individual thinking (deep work time) from collective exchange (synergy time).

Start by listing your routines: the repeatable activities. They fall into 2 categories: the explicit one and the implicit. Meetings for instance are explicits, they are visible in your calendar: 1 on 1 weekly review, team weekly review, monthly review,…The implicits are your personal administrative tasks: scheduling, gathering data, capturing expense notes data or investigating flight schedules, or commuting time to go to a client.

Try to turn these routines into standards. First make them visible: put it into your calendar, second, organize your documents and shorten your input phase. (5S method is originally the steps to get things organized, never ending story). Standards is about making automatic what must be repeated. For instance, I completely simplified my meeting notes routine.

I take notes, only about the decision and copy the list of decisions taken, with pilot and timeline in a mail sent to all attendees. I then copy the mail into the agenda of the next meeting when it is a recurring event. Presentations and supporting documents are attached in the invitation.

It may seem trivial, but recent studies show that we spend 80% in meetings, so it is a huge reservoir of efficiency. I recently visited a company where smart rules of meeting are posted in meeting rooms, requesting for instance to have the supporting documents sent at least the Friday before the meeting happens.If all companies, or just yourself pay attention to these routines and set up simple standards, results will boost.

Photo by Easton Oliver on Unsplash

Step 5 (Shitsuke): “Sustain with journaling” .

If you can’t measure, you can’t manage. Tracking your calendar consistency, your daily habits expressing your long term and mid term goals, this is the role of journaling.

I have been journaling since I am ten, with ups and downs, and consistently for 3 years, but only this year did I realize, thanks to Benjamin Hardy course on journaling, that it was about shaping goals and setting vision in the morning and expressing gratitude in the evening.

If you feel too busy to spend time journaling, I suggest you measure the time you spend reading news from media or friends and check they are really relevant to your own vision and mission. How is this time contributing to your health and wealth? I am confident that you will very soon realize that you actually can spend 30 minutes on a daily appointment with yourself to review your progress and refine your goals.

Then, it is up to you to find what works and what suits your schedule. Helpful resources are available, from the self development top quality literature, from Stephen Covey to Darren Hardy. Talented Medium writers such as Benjamin Hardy or John Mashni are providing their own tracking sheet about morning and evening routines.

Just a few tips: for your own balance scorecard, ensure you are covering the full span of your life commitments: physical, spiritual, relationship and professional, then choose what are the relevant KPI to track daily, as a result of your current goals. Start tracking and refine it on the go.

If you really want to reach peace and focus, you need to go through the first 3 steps. Step 4 and 5 will ensure you never fall back by locking the benefits of the previous steps into a continuous improvement system.

Stop being busy and start to work : Enjoy the life and your success !