Productivity Lessons From a Dance Teacher Who Taught Discipline

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Recently I’ve been struck by how slowly people move. Lately there seems to be a lot of dialogue and articles written about getting up and moving, the importance of exercise for health, stress reduction and the specific benefits of standing up while working (fairly atrocious if you ask me) and the omnipresent topic of obesity.

Few could argue that Americans are a slightly rounder society at this point in time. Why are people slower or are they just flat-out apathetic? Where did we lose our way even though we feel more frazzled and fractured than ever?

Whether it’s the barista frothing my cappuccino as I impatiently embark on my next transcontinental flight or the construction workers blocking the street while cars pile up and they, doughnuts in hand, mosey along attempting to clear the blockage du jour, people seem to be flat-out taking their blasted time. And the one thing nobody has is time.

Then there's the whine and "well" dialogue of some of my consulting clients recently. Tee up a good sigh, a deep breath and prep for a cold breeze to enter the conversation as someone tells me she hasn't done her homework. The harrumphing and cold breeze is then followed by the reason. I get a “well," and then a 10-minute reason for not doing something.

A lot of people have gotten lazy.

Now, hold on! I can hear your exclamation from a mile away, but bear with me. People might feel like they're working harder and longer, but they're not focused on the key tasks that will move the needle in their business.

Or people have become so distracted that their productivity is like a fractured laser beam accomplishing nothing but distributing random points of light. Or they have fallen so out of love with their work that sucking down the sugar while watching traffic build up seems like an entertaining and viable alternative to expeditiously and effectively accomplishing important tasks.

Related: This Company Thinks It's Unlocked the Secret to Employee Engagement and Productivity

I was a ballerina for 14 years, from age 3 to 17. I used to pirouette until I keeled. Why? Because my teacher Mrs. Van Dyk was harsh and she scared me. And she did not suffer the excuses of little American girls very well. 

This teacher was not born yesterday. She knew a flipping excuse when she heard ones like “I couldn’t get to practice because I had too much homework" or "I had no one to drive me." She believed none of it. Get to class and cut the baloney, she advised.

Forget about this millennial stuff where everyone is a winner. My classmates and I weren’t winners. We looked like a class of clowns half the time and were completely unfocused. So she yelled.

But Mrs. Van Dyk just wanted us to be better and knew we could be. She saw our potential long before we ever could. In the dance culture she grew up with in the Netherland, there weren’t excuses for everything.

There was the expectation that you worked hard and kept at it until you got it right. You kept showing up and straightening up. (In fact, to this day, I’m haunted by her instruction “Imagine you have a string going from the top of your head straight through you.”)  

But Mrs. Van Dyk is probably half of the reason that I’ve pulled off as much as I have in my career. Why? I got used to dancing until my feet bled right through my toe shoes. I was conditioned to push through the pain and try just a little bit harder, expect more, whine less. I had to practice until I got it right or I stayed after class until I did.

But these days most people don’t keep pushing and they are suffering for it.

So what is the answer? Work till you bleed? No, but I do have some alternate suggestions:

Related: How an Ex-Ballet Dancer Succeeded by Thinking Outside the Barre

1. Just freaking do it.

Handle it. Get off your duff and do the hard stuff first. Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog! covers this in fabulous detail.

2. Make a list.

Get everything out of your brain and onto paper. Yes, you can type it on a computer. But for me, there's nothing better than using a pencil and paper for list making. This activity seems to hardwire the intentions into my brain better.

3. Chunk the similar items.

When I group like tasks, things seem to go much more smoothly. My categories include buying, attending to my calendar, emailing, calling, writing, sales and accounting (including anything money matters such as invoicing, writing checks). I do basic task batching right when I create a list.

4. Set a timer.

I challenge myself to accomplish things done in certain amounts of time and literally set the stopwatch on my iPhone to see if I can pull it off. This game makes doing things a lot more enjoyable and turns work into play.

5. Determine your best times to work.

If you’re super fired up in the morning, do your heaviest lifting then. If you’re kind of lazy in the late afternoon, pick something that has to get done but requiring a different sort of mental acuity.

I often do research in the late afternoon (my slowest time of the day) because the activity can progress at a mellower pace. 

6. Establish the length of time to work.

Does the 50-minute-on, 10-minute-off deal work for you? Can you power through three hourlong sets or do you perform better with a 90-minute straight concentration game?

7. Test and tweak.

Test a new routine. Every new process tried should go something like this: Identify the problem. Write it down in detail. Break it into specific components so it’s not so overwhelming. Set up a measurable plan to accomplish it (complete with a time allotment for each task and a slot on your calendar to get it done). Toss in a plan to evaluate how the new strategy worked.

8. Improve.

Don’t just determine where the wheels went off the bus but do something specific about it. Determine if you need to work for 60 minutes and then take a 15-minute break. Decide if you can only power through your heaviest tasks four mornings a week instead of five because you need some unscheduled thinking time?

9. Back up.

If you have the tendency to go from indulging in a cupcake, carb-loading frosting diet like mine to “I want to be macrobiotic and look like Gwyneth Paltrow,” reassess. Extremes rarely work, so dial down your grand plan a little if it’s so intense that you won’t accomplish anything.

10. Remember the goals.

People need goals for everything, so be sure you have set them for productivity. If you're trying to change an unproductive behavior, it may have been with you for quite a while. Therefore fight the inertia to get yourself on the right track but not so much that you’ll burn out in five seconds.

All of this motivational writing is making me miss one very familiar thing: my toe shoes. While Mrs. Van Dyk isn’t teaching anymore, I can still hear her thickly accented voice reminding me to stand up straight and pay attention. I guess it’s time to pick up the pace, put down the doughnut, fire up the espresso and focus on what matters. 

Related: The Most Important 20 Minutes of the Day