Mastering Workflow

Posted on March 24, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , |

Once again, for this article I am leveraging heavily from David Allen’s GTD methodology and translating into my own words based upon my experiences. I encourage you to visit the website for tips and tricks on productivity and to buy his books. In addition to the classic Getting Things Done he just published Making It All Work.


I’ve “dressed up” the GTD model here a little and made a few minor modifcations based upon my preferences. This is the roadmap for processing your daily flow of work. Starting at the top center where “stuff” comes into your inbox (whether email, voicemail, notes, postal mail or otherwise), it must be understood and sorted – what I like to call, triaged. The trick is to gather everything together, start at the top of the pile and only handle items once. As you grab each item ask yourself, “can I take action on this?” If the answer is, “no” or, “I don’t know,” it will either be thrown out (preferred), incubated (for a time when you have more information or context to make a good decision) or filed (for later reference – be brutal here to avoid a glut of clutter.) My personal rule, if someone else generated it I only keep it if I will use it frequently or won’t be able to get it later and I know I will need it.

If you answered, “yes” to the action question, you are now allowing that item into your daily workflow. Next, ask yourself, “what is my next action with this item?” If it can be done within 2 minutes, do it now. (This is the GTD rule, sometimes I allow a 2-5 minute margin. Try to stick to 2 minutes and avoid anything longer than 5 as you will be derailed and not get through your processing!)

If the item will take more than 2-5 minutes to complete, you’re either going to delegate it to someone else (and track in a file called “waiting for”) or defer it for later. I use my calendar when something has an urgency or specific time element to it and a task item if it is not time sensitive. If the item looks confusing, complicated or just too big, it’s a project.

Projects are activities that will require two or more actions to complete. For example, your boss asked you to reserve a nice place to eat for the department celebration. Before you can place a phone call, you’ll want to know what’s the budget, who’s paying, how much time will be needed, who’s invited, preferences for venues, menu options and so on. Avoid putting this on your task list as a single item. Or, if you do, be sure to write out the specific steps that will be needed to complete the project. Why write them out? When the project is fresh and you’re clear about what needs to be done for completion, why redo your work later? If you use the note section of the calendar or task item, you’ll save valuable time later by simply reading and executing. See my article on Natural Planning for pointers on how to tackle more complicated projects. (These notes on the task or appointment is actually a project plan!)

Now that the item is captured in your system, work your system. If you are thorough about capture, process and organize, everything will be in your work process and you’ll be ready to get things done! As Henry Ford said, “Before anything else, getting ready is the key to success.”

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Priority Setting

Posted on February 17, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , |

prioritysettingInspiration comes at unusual times. Today at my Master Minds meeting a colleague was struggling (my perception) with having too much to do and not enough time. As the top executive in a not for profit organization, budget is tight and only volunteers are available for taking on extra work — unusual, huh? This woman understood the familiar four quadrant model that divides tasks into important or not important and urgent or not urgent.

In this model, anything that is both important and urgent is the responsibility of the person in charge and should be the top priority. If the task is urgent but not important, it should be delegated to others who can get to them immediately without disrupting the role of the leader. Jobs that are important but not urgent should still reside with the leader but in a lower priority behind the urgent and important tasks. By the way, that last group of tasks — neither urgent nor important can be ignored, nobody need do them and they may simply be considered “noise.”

As we reviewed her daily tasks it was obvious she was all over the place. In the same day she might negotiate a contract with a key vendor, create a dozen journal entries in the organization’s books, answer more than 100 emails and empty the trash. Through the course of discussion, the above diagram seemed to be a useful twist on the familiar four quadrant grid.

With a key event as the target on the horizon, priorities shift through the life of the project. Early on, her focus is getting the right volunteers, gaining alignment and a common sense of purpose. She may lead the event committee(s) but will be setting the stage for committee members (volunteers) to take on tasks in the later stages. While she may do some urgent but not important tasks in the middle of the project, they are virtually non-existent in the most early stages of the project and can typically be ignored. As the diagram illustrates, as the day for the event draws near our director is fully engaged with important and urgent tasks, but “others” are taking more and more of those urgent projects. Finally, on the day of the event, all work should be delegated. This leaves our director available for all unforeseen “important” crises.

Oh, and if something of great importance occurs on the day of the event, it can safely be put off until after the event is concluded. As a former manager taught me, if a problem is really important it will still be there in the morning.

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