She taught English, set up a language school, worked in the IT sector, created websites and started businesses. But somehow, despite having a strong entrepreneurial flair, nothing ever seemed to come of Ciara Conlon’s efforts.
For a long time, says the 44-year-old Dubliner, now a productivity consultant, author and vice-president of Network Ireland, she couldn’t figure out what was holding her back. “I was naturally disorganised — I’d leave things lying around, couldn’t focus. I had lots of ideas and I’d be starting up websites and businesses but I never followed through.”
Then, after her second child was born, Conlon took the bit between her teeth and signed up for a diploma in personal and executive coaching.
“Up to then I had seen myself as a victim of circumstances, but after the course I felt empowered to change my life. I knew I was disorganised, but I didn’t actually realise the extent of it,” she recalls now.
The course taught her that people can change, and demonstrated how it is up to every one of us to take the responsibility for that change.
Ciara became interested in a productivity plan called Getting Things Done, a workflow system designed by a US expert “When I started to implement that programme it helped me focus and follow through on things.”
She’d just started to teach the system to receptive corporate teams and business executives when the recession hit in 2007; companies soon started saying they “needed to focus on sales”, she recalls.
Ciara took time out, worked on adapting the system and wrote her first book, Chaos to Control; A Practical Guide to Getting Things Done, in which she tackles the lack of vision, focus, and poor habits which she believes obstruct the flow of an effective work environment.
“I figured I’d be ready when the recession was over. My version of productivity is more holistic, because it takes into account not just systems and processes but the individual behaviours which affects our productivity.”
As Ireland steadily emerges from recession, she’s an in-demand productivity consultant coach and speaker who works with everyone from company CEOs to corporate teams and senior managers who, she says, “feel they can do more to maximise their performance”.
Three issues come up repeatedly in these sessions, Ciara observes. The first is a failure to plan: “People don’t believe they have the time to plan, and they don’t take the time to think about work, but head straight into it so they’re firefighting rather than being in control; reacting to work rather than controlling it.”
The second pitfall is email overload. “People don’t handle their emails effectively,” says Conlon, who is currently writing her second book, The Dummies’ Guide to Productivity.
The third problem is often experienced by female executives who try to do everything themselves. “I’ve come across very senior female management figures who try to do everything and this isn’t possible. You can do anything but you can’t do everything!” Women need to learn that they can’t be all things to all people, she believes.
“You can be a successful career woman and a good mum but you must learn to delegate and choose your battle — and this is an issue for some women. They need to prioritise and get help where possible in sharing domestic chores and responsibilities,” says Ciara, a mother of three who reports that while some women do manage this, she has come across company managing directors and CEOs, who do “amazing work” and yet, “if I ask them if they have a cleaner in the home, they say they don’t. I tell them to get one.”
Conlon’s Tips for maximum productivity
Schedule the week in advance. Remember, what gets scheduled gets done. Get a diary, and use the calendar to plan your week.
Eliminate distractions. Switch off email, facebook and twitter notifications.
Declutter your environment — clear your desk — and your head by categorising and prioritising tasks.
·Get organised. Sort out your files. Set up a simple efficient and easy-to-operate A-Z filing system which has a place for everything.
Get clear about your goals and priorities. To be productive, you must have a very clear vision of what you want to achieve. It is only then that you know if the work you are doing is a priority. Ask if what you are doing is helping to achieve your goals. · 6. Introduce good lifestyle habits, Exercise, sleep, nutrition. · 7. Wear headphones and listen to classical music. This acts as a deterrent to chatty colleagues because it effectively signals that you are preoccupied. It also blocks environmental distractions and helps you focus.
Batch process email. Only open your email inbox four times a day. Don’t leave it open all the time and only open it to process the work the emails contain.
Maintain a positive attitude. Research shows optimistic and positive people are more productive and perform better.
Do a weekly review. Take time to review your calendar and plan the week ahead. “This is about reviewing your progress to date and organising the work to be done in the week to come.”