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How zombies are ruining your job and your life

Zombies are taking over your company and your life. They want to eat your brain. Here's how to fight back.

The most interesting bit of research I saw last year came from Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer on what really motivates workers. It turns out that the number one factor is a sense of progress on important work. Combine this finding with "decision fatigue" (studied in relation to judges' rulings), and we arrive that by the end of the day, your brain has been eaten by zombies. Each task you do involves a decision, and depletes your mental resources and likely, your motivation. For tasks that give you a sense of progress, let's call these "progress tasks," the well is partially refilled. Let's call tasks that offer no sense of progress "zombies." After a day of working on a "change the world" project, people can keep going. But an hour of TPS reports (the value-less work that plagued employees from the movie "Office Space") means an hour of zombies snacking on your brain.

It gets worse. The more zombies you kill, the more zombies the noise attracts. Try to answer all your email -- all of it. Tomorrow, you'll probably have as many unread emails as you had before you started. Catch up on your paperwork and your assistant probably has another stack he's been keeping for when that's done. Fill out a rebate card and zombies -- direct mail, spam, telemarketers -- will be chasing you for months.

And the really bad news is that they don't just affect individuals, they infest whole groups of people. I wrote last year about the rise of zombie cultures.

There are two things you can do about this zombie infestation.

First, take your routine work and find a way to track your progress. As a test, I woke up yesterday and had 555 unread emails. This was 555 zombies chasing me around. I set up an Excel spreadsheet, noting various times. By 5:48 p.m., when I left for a meeting, I had only 109 unread emails left. What was remarkable about this experience was that the feeling of getting through email felt completely different than the usual "oh crap, look at how many emails I have to get through." As my friend Daniel Mezick says, "make work a game, and you'll get more done and have more fun." His new book, The Culture Game is a great how-to on converting zombies to progress tasks.

Second, reduce the decisions required to get things done. David Allen artfully describes what happens when you look at a piece of paper, a report, an email, or anything else. Your brain asks: "What is this?" You have to make a decision -- increasing decision fatigue. As an example of how to reduce the number of decisions, ask everyone to put the following in the front line of an email message: "FYI," "Invitation," or "To do." An "FYI" means you need to read it but take no action. An invitation means you're being asked to consider doing something, and saying "no" is OK. The decision is simple: yes or no. And a "to do" needs to be put on your to do list or calendar. Notice that you never asked "What is this?" To strain the analogy, this email protocol doesn't cut the number of zombies, but it slows them down and makes them easier to kill. Combine this action with #1 above, and you transform zombies into -- are you sitting down -- fun things to do. My company CultureSync has just started this protocol and we have all been amazed at its impact.

Here are three other ways you can reduce zombies:

1. At the start of every meeting, ask "What do we need to accomplish, and do we agree that once we get that done, we can leave?" Now a meeting isn't a wait-out-the-clock affair, but gives you a sense of progress measured against goals.

2. Every time you deal with a zombie, see if you can prevent that zombie from coming back. Paying bills is zombies; automate that. Next time you see an automated email that adds no value, unsubscribe. Make zombie prevention a game, and you'll get a double bonus -- fewer zombies, and increased motivation. When I answered most of my 555 unread emails, I unsubscribed to 52 lists. Those zombies are gone for good.

3. Play more games. One year, I wanted to lose weight, so I tracked the total number of miles I ran on an Excel spreadsheet. This made it fun. My motivation increased even more because it was cool to see my progress as I tracked the average number of miles per day. I've written in other blog posts about the best time management tool ever, which is 20 minute segments. Commit to a certain number of segments, or miles, or books read, and you'll feel a sense of progress measured against your goals.

Have you found ways to turn zombies into progress tasks? Have you prevented some zombies from coming back? Or is your work life like a day from The Walking Dead? I hope you'll share what you're learning by posting a comment below.

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