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Author Archive for Judith DeCosta

Productivity And People Who Will Not Take No For An Answer

Not too long ago, our office hosted a two-hour productivity seminar at 9:30 in the morning; attendance was mandatory. The irony of dropping every pressing request and blocking time off during peak hours amused me to no end. The lure of refreshments and a chance to spend the morning away from my desk aside, I was curious to see what the presenters had in store if their website offered allegedly helpful advice such as how to scale back meetings and tips on home organization. Then there was this: take control of interruptions to your workday. I was sold!

We all deal with a constant stream of interruptions during the day, that’s not news. Studies indicate that it takes a full 20 minutes to refocus your attention on the task at hand when you get interrupted. I think the further in the zone you are, the worse it is. One thing I learned early in my professional life is that you cannot please everyone all of the time and while it is important to be helpful and nice to coworkers they can suck the life and will out of you before lunch.

My role is mostly an online one and I like to keep a tidy desk that does not have papers scattered in sloping piles right across. Lately, I have taken to fanning a few pages about just for the optics of it. Sitting quietly in front of my machine is not to be taken as an invitation to discuss what someone just read on Twitter, or recap last night’s episode of “Game of Thrones” (shut up, no spoilers, please … I’m a whole season behind!) Pre-seminar, I might have poked my head out looking like thunder and hissed at them to shut up. Post-seminar, I ask myself what can I do to change the things that are bothering me. I can stream the morning news and listen with earbuds; I can stuff noise-reducing earplugs in and focus on my breathing and my spreadsheet. Or …! I pick up the phone and loudly return a few calls. Only then, if I still have to, will I poke my head out looking like thunder and hiss at them to shut up.

My favourite takeaway from the productivity seminar was actually being told to turn off my email notifications in order to focus and remain productive. You could feel the tension ripple through the room: what a radical idea! Who invited these hacks? Are they going off-script?! The nerve of them, are they trying to get me fired? Is this a test? … okay, so I’m projecting just a teensy bit. Still, I loved the novelty of it. Nothing infuriates me more than to get one pop-up notification/ping/buzz after another and see a stream of unread mail in my inbox, only to then open them and read two little words: Thank you. Seriously? You have nothing else of value to add, no promise to deliver data, follow-up, regroup in a week, nothing?

I turned off my inbox notifications as soon as I got back from the seminar and never turned it back on. No FOMO, no regret, don’t miss the “you’ve got mail” dopamine rush. I can block a half hour or so a couple of times a day, file away the non-action items, add to-do flags to the ones that I need to follow-up on, use the “meeting” button on my toolbar to add the super-important stuff to my own calendar, cross off the completed tasks with a sense that something was actually achieved. No prizes for guessing what I do with the “thanks” messages.

People, though, get very anxious and miss the dopamine. That’s when the calls and drop-ins start: “Hi, did you read my email? You never responded to my email. Can we talk about my email now?” Um, no. Here’s what I learned to say, without guilt, insinuation or aggravation. I say it calmly, softly and with deep gravitas: “I am in the middle of something else right now, I will have to get back to you/come see you as soon as I am done with this. Let’s put it on the calendar”. Try it, it’s like a flu shot for your mental health.

Here’s how I see it: the big stuff doesn’t just happen in an instant. There is usually a long sequence of events, plenty of correspondence back and forth between client and vendor and all parties that matter, conference calls and GoTo meetings, planning, planning, and planning. Then one hapless unfortunate comes in, in the middle of the movie, fails to grasp the plot, asks the wrong questions (and thanks every last person for every last bit of it); still fails to understand the purpose or goal of what everyone else has been going on about. Then one day, say around 10:00 a.m., she decides to come sweeping down from one of the practice floors with her stack of invoices, mismatched payments and inch-thick, binder-clipped stack of emails, and asks, did you read my email?

View From HR

This blog is part of our Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice series offered this Fall.

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;

Lengthen night and shorten day;

Every leaf speaks bliss to me

Fluttering from the autumn tree.

 -Emily Bronte

Forget Christmas, for me Fall is the most exciting time of the year! For some it’s a time crack open school books and make new friends, for others a time to harvest, shore up for the Winter, light fires and cozy up indoors. Nature rolls out a tapestry of yellows and reds and days start to get shorter. The coffee shops roll out the pumpkin spice lattes, muffins and other treats, Halloween decorations start to creep up in early September and – my favourite – the shoe shops finally put the high-heeled boots out on display.

This year my attention is on a different type of boot though, the type with a steel-toe best accessorized with a hard hat. I started volunteering as a recruitment coordinator with Habitat for Humanity in the Spring. Habitat, for the uninitiated, is a world-renowned, US-based charitable organization with a very humble, basic purpose: to build decent, well-constructed homes for deserving families and provide a sense of dignity, humanity and community in the process. Not only are the homes built entirely out of donated materials and volunteer building crews, the families for whom they are built are also expected to put “sweat equity” into the build. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbours, strangers (not for long) all wield hammers, nails, power saws and screwdrivers alongside each other for months on end until a house takes shape and a dream slowly reaches fulfillment. Habitat also operates a number of outlets where donated building supplies and home décor are sold and that’s where I come in. The Milton ReStore opened to great fanfare and great mishap earlier this year when it was vandalized during its opening weekend. Still, as they say in Tinsel town, there’s no such thing as bad press and the stolen losses were quickly restocked with generous donations from the big box hardware stores.

Staffing issues at the store, like with most volunteer opportunities, is sporadic. Even for a small hamlet like Milton, it amazes me how people going about their weekend chores and shuttling the kiddies to karate class and altogether miss the giant blue, white and green signs on the former Canada Post office just off Main Street. So it was time to do something about that and a plan was hatched to hold a recruitment event to draw the throngs from the Saturday farmer’s market towards the store. Most people park right in front of the store before wandering off to haul in farm fresh goodies, so why not lure them towards the store with a table full of chocolates and a warm smile? We even found a nice Miltonian to donate a big bunch of blue, green and white balloons!

I’ve worked in corporate recruiting before and the ABC sales mantra “Always Be Closing” was always an undercurrent flowing through every gesture and thought and utterance to clients and candidates. On this sunny Saturday morning, however, I felt relaxed, confident, ready with my forms and 30 second sell for Habitat and the store. In turn, I must have inspired confidence in those I met because over the space of a couple of hours, my colleague and I met with several enthusiastic locals who signed up for shifts at the store and made mental notes to donate their household fixtures and furniture in the future instead of leaving them out on a curb.

We plied them with chocolates and brochures and, after we packed up shop, headed down to the neighbourhood coffee joint for celebratory lattes. The featured drink was a White Chocolate Pumpkin Mocha, cinnamon sticks pictured not included. The larger than life glass cup, brimming with delicious Fall goodness, looked like a warm, inviting, giant foamy mocha bath. I wanted to wrap the banner around my shoulders like an afghan but the barista was eyeing me silently and politely waiting for my order.

White Chocolate, Pumpkin, and Mocha – that enigmatic subtle blend of chocolate and coffee – are all pretty unique and powerful on their own. Yet someone thought to combine them into a sweet, satisfying and spicy super drink which is warm, potent and satisfying. As I stood in line I looked around the crowded little coffee shop and thought about the teamwork of flavour and the combination of caffeine and sugar increasing the productivity of the organization, or rather the organism (me).

I took in the satisfied customers milling about, the cash flow from paying customers to staff, the little microcosm of commerce and industry. I savoured the flavours of chocolate and pumpkin spice in my mind and let them wash over me like the warm colours of Fall outside. The diversity of the ingredients in the cup emerged as a metaphor for the young and elderly clientele who filled the little coffee shop as well as the Habitat store down the street and the committee of volunteers I worked with.

Here was a diverse and unique bunch of mostly women, all highly skilled and accomplished professionals with a wide network of resources who were lending their time and expertise to recruit skilled merchandisers and crew leaders for building homes little town I now choose to call home. I was heady with delight at all the little connections and how it made up the thread of our society and humanity. Strength and goodness meeting their counterparts, working for a greater good: it warms me on the inside.

About Judith:

I’m an emerging HR professional whose day job is in Finance at a downtown Toronto law firm.  I guest-blog about my dogs and food.  I enjoy creative writing and meeting new people and can be reached at