Time Management 2.1

Posted on February 12, 2010. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , |

Borrowing from the popular Web 2.0 theme, I’ve been considering what would the next generation of time management look like… since a lot of really smart people have already been working on this topic for a while, I decided my work is nothing special so it doesn’t deserve a 3.0 label, but I think I have an interesting twist on a very popular subject, hence TM2.1.

Consider all the tools — paper-based, client-based and web-based — available for free or purchase. The options are overwhelming and it is not my intention here to create an inventory. If I did, it would soon be out-of-date… probably before I hit the “Publish” button on my blog!

And this is the inspiration for my newest quest in time management… what would time management look like if it were tool agnostic?

Time Management Without Brand Names

My time management practices tend to become driven by the capabilities of the system I’m using. When I used Outlook, I filed all messages in a single folder because that was all that was possible. When I switched to Gmail I quickly learned the value of using categories instead of folders because now I didn’t have to decide which folder to use, I could use whatever categories fit. Even then, after years of using Gmail, I rely much less on structured organization and mostly use the search  feature to find what I’m seeking.

Herein lies the problem, when I align my practices with the features of a product I become beholden to the product and not the underlying task requirement. This started me thinking about the basic building blocks of my time management system. The challenge here will be to think about each part without using the Microsoft, Google or GTD names! Instead, I intend to describe the specific task in generic language.

Correspondence

When I started my career in 1980, email didn’t exist. All correspondence happened in paper form or by telephone. Instant messaging wasn’t even a dream. It was customary to plan 3 days for one’s correspondence to get to its destination. If something was really important, courier services existed for overnight delivery, but they charged a high premium for the privilege.

With email, instant messaging, chat, texting and social network sites we now have many ways to keep in touch, communicate and reach out. Plus, the old standby of postal mail is still in the picture. I’ve not seen an interoffice memorandum for some time, but I’m sure some businesses and public organizations still correspond in this format.

Tasks

In my world, correspondence usually leads to tasks. A meeting with a colleague, an email from a student, and IM from my child — these usually generate something for me to do. I wonder sometimes if, what we refer to as time-management wouldn’t more accurately be called task-management.

Scheduling

For me, scheduling is really tasks with priorities applied. While many of us play with the idea of multi-tasking, such divided attention practices rarely produce useful, meaningful outcomes. They are better suited for monitoring or maintaining what is happening around us. When we need to devote our attention to getting something done, we must focus our attention. This typically involves setting a priority and putting it in our schedule.

People

None of us is an island, we all rely on others for even the most mundane of activities — try starting your day without using products and services provided by someone else! Whether the person is a loved-one, a friend, an acquaintance or a service provider, I am often challenged with keeping track of them all. Throw in account numbers, usernames and password codes — all of which allow us to interact with other people or the services they offer — and this becomes a significant element for time management.

Reference Locators

This group is particulary hard for me to describe without using a common technology label, bookmarks. Its purpose however — and what distinguishes it from the next group — is its reference to accessing information that is routinely needed. In the year of 2010, we are stuck in a transition from reference information stored in a physical place to storage in a virtual place. The result is, we must have duplicate, parallel systems that work well together. To complicate things further, items stored in physical space are of a variety of dimensions. While a file cabinet and storage locker may work for most items, there is invariably something that fits in neither. There is a parallel problem in the virtual world — bookmarks, pictures, email, documents, etc require slightly different treatment.

Archives

This the miscellaneous category. Pretty much everything I’ve ever dealt with has one. Those nasty exceptions that just don’t fit anywhere else. The typical characteristic here is they are important — otherwise you would have thrown it away — and the time horizon of need is undetermined — otherwise, you would put them into your schedule. The primary challenge with archives is remembering you have them and being able to find what you need when you need it.

A Roadmap for Future Work

This topic has been on my mind (and a task list) for months, ever since I struggled with adapting the outdated electronic systems used by the State of Oregon to my personal time management system. I still remember a conversation with my carpool partner Steve about the topic. I was frustrated and threw my hands into the air — I feel like I’m being forced back to a paper system, but I still remember all the problems with paper! I initially wrote this blog article on 20-AUG-2010, but couldn’t finish it.

Subsequently, I struggled with the difficulties of having multiple locations from which I needed to access information. The age-old problem of not being in the same place as my address book when I needed to make a phone call, and related problems.

In more recent days, I am worried about my reliance on any one product or service. I enjoy when my time management system works for me and stays in the background. I become discouraged when a provider changes a feature I rely on or a technology change out dates an application that is the cornerstone of my electronic system.

Having a roadmap that lays out the basic blocks of my time management system and its requirements is a useful tool for future migrations and tool modifications. We all know they are coming, it’s only a matter of time! I’ll use my professional blog as a forum for working through these issues and options and I invite questions and opinions along the way…

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The Weekly Review

Posted on May 4, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , |

I initially thought this article would be about clearing-the-decks. A term I learned from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. Clearing-the-decks is something that helps us get back on track when we’ve fallen off the GTD bandwagon. But circumstances in my personal life have conspired to remind me of the importance of not allowing things to get this far! Seems only fair to write first about how to do things and then, later, I’ll write about how to pick yourself up after life gets the better of your attempts to remain organized.

This article is a companion to the previous Levels of Perspective article. It is my intention to focus on what I’ve done and am doing now rather than on the GTD theory behind it. Weekly reviews are extremely pragmatic activity – essentially, this is where the rubber meets the road. In my four distinct iterations of applying GTD, I have discovered that effective use of the Weekly Review directly determines my success and sanity. I cannot over-emphasize this activity!

Review Happens Every Week!

Figure 1 is a screen shot of the appointment in my Outlook calendar for a Weekly Review on 11 MAY 2009. I’ve scheduled a recurring Weekly Review appointment for every Monday morning from 0800 to 1000 hours. The time of day tends to move around periodically. As mentioned earlier I’m in my fourth iteration of using GTD since first being introduced in 2004 — I had two different jobs at one employer then was notified of a workforce reduction and began looking full-time for another job (Thanksgiving 2008); finally I’m back to work (as of 27 APR 2009). Each of these change of circumstances has dictated a different application of the weekly review. What you’re looking at now has evolved even more than the four job changes. In fact, it will likely change again when I begin teaching at the university. That’s the nice thing about GTD, it’s incredibly flexible.

Weekly Review

Figure 1. Weekly Review Appointment

Cleanup

There are three distinct steps to the Weekly Review — cleanup, review, preparation. Cleanup is kind of like clearing-the-decks. The idea is to gather everything together, start at the top of each in-box (I have an in-box on my PCs desktop and an in-box tray on my desk) and triage each item one-at-a-time. By triage I mean, to pick up a single item and spend up to 2-minutes reviewing what to do. If the item can be deleted, filed or completed in 2-minutes or less, I’ll do it on the spot. If it looks like it will take longer, I disposition it in my system. (See Mastering Workflow for a more detailed discussion of this process.)

Note the final two bullets of the first step refer to gathering tasks from my calendar and notes. I use Microsoft OneNote because it has a powerful search engine built in to identify action items for the past week. However, in the next month I will go from having a single PC where all of my data resides in one place to having my information scattered across four locations — home, two different employers and a laptop. To make this task easier and to ensure I capture things as they are happening, I’ve “moved into the cloud.” (The cloud is a reference to cloud computing where a desktop, laptop or palm top device allows access to data stored on the Internet.) I am experimenting with a private blog to capture a daily summary of work, an on-line Google Calendar for synchronizing several calendars into a single place and a pair of Google Docs spreadsheets for consolidating and archiving projects/tasks. This system is a bit cumbersome presently but it allows all of the same functionality without having to remember where I stored a file!

Review

Now that I’ve got everything that happened over the past week in one place, I’m ready to pull out some lists of things I’ve been tracking  — and consolidate them into an updated project/tasks list. I tend to be a pack rat when it comes to getting things done. Although I keep only active and future items on this list, I don’t want to forget anything either. Imagine having to prepare a report of what you did six months ago without notes! But I don’t want to keep all of this stuff in my head either. That’s where the archive spreadsheet comes in… in MS Excel, I was able to use one spreadsheet with two tabs, but Google Docs is not that sophisticated yet. Still, because I have have two browser tabs open next to each other, this seems to be working OK for now. See Figure 2.

Note the key in the top two rows of the spreadsheet. I’m a nut about keeping things consistent without having to memorize. The first row refers to the Levels of Perspective. The second line reminds me how I’ve kept track of my notes, there are examples of each within the figure. Also, note on the far left of the diagram where the row numbers have skipped from 4 to 14 to 29 and so on, the spreadsheet allows me to collapse rows so I can have a more compact view of the projects. Those hidden rows are simply tasks that support the projects listed in Column A. By the way, the Weekly Review and this spreadsheet are an excellent place to conduct Natural Planning.

Project-Task List

Figure 2. Project-Task List

 

Preparation

Now that I have gathered everything together from the past week and reviewed it so I know what needs to happen in the coming weeks or months, I’m ready to set my intentions for next week. Referring back to Figure 1, the third section shows I have 7 tasks. From Figure 2, you can see I have already completed 3 tasks (as indicated by the cells with stricken text) and one has been “added to my system” (as indicated by the green highlighting.) The other four tasks still need to get done, but not this week. This is what I mean when I refer to getting things out-of-my-head. I must have a place where I trust they’ll stick around until I have either the time, energy or motivation (like a deadline!) to work on them. By having them in this spreadsheet I don’t worry about losing them and I know I’ll revisit them in no more than one week.

A note on writing tasks… in a previous blog article I mentioned a movie called Memento  in which the protagonist, Leonard, forgets everything when he falls asleep. He is trying to find a murderer but someone is trying to kill him. So, each day before he falls asleep from exhaustion he leaves himself a warning note. Unfortunately, he writes these notes so ambiguously he can’t figure out the warning until yet another death attempt. Don’t be like Leonard, write your tasks as if they will be read by someone who is unfamiliar with their content — avoid all but the most common acronyms, leave breadcrumbs (links) to important reference materials, write complete sentences as appropriate, etcetera.

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Levels of Perspective

Posted on April 20, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , |

Levels of PerspectiveIn his book, Getting Things Done, David Allen refers to the Levels of Perspective. The diagram at right briefly identifies the six levels, describes what they reflect and how often they should be revisited. The remainder of this article will address these levels and provide some insight into how I use this information in my personal productivity practices. Rather than starting at the ground level, however, I’m going to start in the clouds to provide perspective. As we move closer to the runway, you will notice a much more concrete sense of what is being done.

50,000 Feet

You can see a lot from 50,000 feet, in fact, in this model you can see your entire life. This is where we ask the really big questions of ourselves – What do I want to with my life? How do I want to be remembered? Why am I here? Is this all there is? It is critical to note, questions asked at 50,000 feet are the kind that have the potential to change us and the lives of those who are near and dear to us as well. For example, if I decide my job is not rewarding and I want to change careers, everyone in the household who relies on my corporate salary will be impacted – not only financially either.

Because such swings have far-reaching impact on our relationships – we don’t make changes at this level very often. Therefore, an annual or even bi-annual (every other year) or longer time period between examination may be appropriate. But during times of great disruption – birth of a child, job loss, death of a loved one, marriage or divorce, relocation as a trailing spouse, etc. – more frequent review may be appropriate.

The Fuzzy Middle

As we begin our descent from lofty altitudes, things begin to become more concrete. I tend to see the thinking that is done at 40, 30 and 20,000 foot level as a bit fuzzy. Fuzzy because it depends on your circumstances as to how important three levels of perspective really are. Some of us think in great detail and need to see a clearly defined hierarchy of relationships. Others are overwhelmed by the volume and frequency and need the space that less detail provides.

The reason I say these middle perspectives are fuzzy is that while a 50,000 foot level review is essential, for some having so many “levels” of perspective is not useful. What’s important is, what works for you. If you need to combine levels to simplify or keep separate reviews to feel in control, go with it. However, regularly scheduled reviews at monthly, quarterly and annual time intervals are essential.

Current labor force statistics show three years is typical for how long most of us remain in a job. In my personal experience, it takes almost that much time to learn a job well enough to master it. By then, it’s usually more satisfying to start looking for ways to impact my surroundings beyond just a good, steady job performance or move to a different job. By suggesting an annual review at this level of perspective, I’m really suggesting each year you look at the lay of the land (your environment and situation) and determine whether your activities are “in line” with your big picture. Deep evaluation at this level could lead to re-evaluating your 50,000 foot level priorities… or it could simply mean deciding to discontinue certain projects or activities.

VISION

Examples of questions to ask at the 40,000 foot level might be:

  • If I want to change careers, will I need additional education?
  • Is my living space serving me or do I need to begin looking for a new home – new community – or planning for a remodel?
  • Am I satisfied with my primary relationship or are there things I want to do with my partner to change our lifestyle?

LONG-TERM GOALS

Goals in this context are a more granular version of your vision. In other words, if you are changing careers and deciding you want to obtain additional education, you set a goal to identify what degree program to pursue, identify the best places and options for attending school and understand and complete the requirements for application. Each one of these goals should specify what is to be done, by when and how you will know it is complete. See my article on Linking Strategy and Tactics for a review of how to create SMART goals.

Plan to review long-term goals quarterly – more frequently if they feel more like “areas of responsibility” less frequently if they are more like your 3-5 year vision.

AREAS OF RESPONSIBILITY

This could look like a job description – yes, I’m suggesting you review your job description regularly. If you work without a job description but have a manager, shame on you! Having a clear understanding of what you are responsible for on an ongoing basis is an essential part of effectiveness. Most managers will actually value if you take the time to evaluate what you are doing routinely and present it in the form of a description of duties. Areas of responsibility should be reviewed monthly. One client of mine decided she wanted to do this monthly review with a friend. We created an oral monthly review with a few guidelines, please A Template for an Oral Monthly Review for more specifics.

Current Projects

Critical to personal effectiveness is a regular and frequent examination of your current projects. Done on a weekly basis, this 10,000 foot level may feel more like tree top flying at times. Most of us have more to do than we have time to do it. This type of review is definitely about keeping your head above the weeds and ensuring you are using your time wisely.

Weekly ReviewAll current project must be reviewed weekly – except in extreme and infrequent occasions like vacation, crisis and rush seasons like the couple of weeks before 15 April if you are a CPA.

Note within the diagram, the very first thing to do is to gather everything together. If you are like me, work has a tendency to pile up. For example, I opened the mail in one room one day and a different room the next, I have notes from a meeting in a binder, a friend loaned me a book with a typed set of questions, etc. All of this should be in front of you within easy sight, preferrably in a single pile. Only handle things once. Pull out all of your lists of actions and either check things off (often I find I can eliminate a good share of the lists even if I hadn’t been keeping track during the week), prioritize things that are due appropriately and even schedule an appointment with yourself on the calendar to ensure you have time to get it done. Don’t forget to look at your calendar. I find it useful to look one week forward and one week back to ensure I’m not forgetting anything. Finally, after everything has been reviewed and dispositioned, update your lists and get back to the tasks that demand your attention. I find if I’m regular about my weekly reviews, I can get these done in as little as 20-30 minutes. When things are particularly hectic, it may actually be the only time during the week when I stick my head up at all to re-connect with my bigger picture.

A similar activity to the weekly review is done when things get “piled up”. It’s called clearing the decks. My next blog article will address this subject in detail.

The Runway

I do this one a lot, at least once per day and sometimes more often. At the beginning of the day (if I have time, otherwise the night before) I look at my calendar and task list to evaluate what comes next. If I’m consistent at putting things on my lists – scheduling work as appropriate and keeping my inbox clean – this takes less than a minute. By the way, I typically batch my email – meaning, I keep the inbox covered, closed or out-of-sight except for 2-3 times per day. I triage my inbox during these times – if I can respond to the message in 2-5 minutes, I do. If the message will take more time it goes onto one of my action lists.  In priority order I review my lists and inboxes as follows:

  1. Email and phone calls,
  2. Tasks scheduled on my Outlook Calendar,
  3. Tasks in my Outlook Task list,
  4. Email that takes longer than 5 minutes to complete,
  5. Things I’m waiting for or incubating,
  6. Finally, I’ll look at my bulk mail.

Next week, I’ll write a follow-on article to this called The Weekly Review.

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