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 If I did, it would soon be out-of-date… probably before I hit the “Publish” button on my blog!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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Google Conundrum

Posted on January 20, 2010. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , |

Computers and technology seem inherently disappointing. Isn’t it amazing all of the things we can do today that nobody even imagined 10 years ago… Facebook, Twitter, phone apps, mobility, cloud computing, blogging, etc.

The problem is, when I find an application that does something I want — like Outlook does a nice job organizing a calendar and has a super powerful task function — there are trade-offs, Outlook is confined to a single PC. As computer hardware becomes more ubiquitous, being confined to a single work station, even if it is a laptop or a smart phone, seems silly and limiting.

From Outlook to Google

So, I moved on to Google. The Gmail email interface is more flexible than Outlook and replacing folders with tags was ingenious… and liberating. With tags and Google’s famous search capabilities, filing and retrieving messages is no longer a chore. Plus, I no longer I have to limit myself to a single piece of hardware. I can access messages anywhere I have an internet connection. Plus, the calendar function has evolved to be even better than Outlook (it didn’t start there!) Google is working on an improved “task” functionality, but it too is painfully so slow in coming.

Next Comes Mobility

Once freed from a single work station, my mind begins to worry about accessing information when I’m not connected to a network. Sure, I could pay my Verizon cancellation fee, spend an exorbitant sum on an iPhone and throw the thousands of dollars I’ve spent on PC-compatibility out the window so I could switch to Apple’s dark side, which also brings other complications. Too bad money doesn’t grow on trees. Plus, AT&T cellular coverage sucks in the small community where I live. And, all cellular coverage has holes. So, expecting to always have a network connection is such 2025 thinking.

Enter an iPod Touch. The benefits are great — in addition to getting a portable, flexible organizer that works even when the network is unavailable or inconvenient to use, iTunes allows synchronization with Outlook; Outlook will sync with Google and the whole system “hangs together.” The Touch does not require an expensive phone plan and it can sync with this time management universe through a small USB cable.

Onto Convenience

With computer memory so cheap and so many useful applications available, 64-bit technology is the next logical step. With old style 32-bit processors, computers are limited to 4GB of memory. That worked when there wasn’t much to run on your PC, but things have changed. The 64-bit processor allows virtually unlimited memory but also requires more modern operating systems and sophisticated software programs. Windows 7 promises many improvements over Windows XP (I never did make the step into Vista) and I dutifully updated all of my equipment to run Microsoft’s latest and greatest operating system this month.

Now the Google Conundrum

Even though 64-bit technology has been around for years, Google hasn’t discovered it yet. While their Calendar Sync application does a wonderful job of keeping my iPod synchronized with Google calendar via Outlook and iTunes, it doesn’t work in a 64-bit environment. Windows 7 offers this cool gimmick called “compatibility mode” which allows a user to run applications as if they were in a previous operating environment. I say “gimmick” because it doesn’t work. Much like the play ground toys at my local grade school, there are lots of knobs to tweak and levers to pull, but nothing happens outside of your imagination.

And, I’m on my own. Nobody seems to have this same problem and Google has no plans to support 64-bit operating systems. Microsoft has no incentive to put its client-based application online in a meaningful way for an individual user. Apple is stuck in their arrogance of wanting to control all elements of their tiny virtual ecosystem. All those mobile app builders are busying themselves with more important functionality for the masses like Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars or iMario Lite.

Once again, my fantasies drift back to simpler days of paper-based Franklin Day Planners…

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In Box Processing

Posted on May 18, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , |

Initially, this article was to discuss personal worflow mastery. But after last week’s Mastermind session describing the Weekly Review, I changed my mind. Instead, this article will focus on the seemingly impossible task of how I keep my inbox at zero.

“An inbox at zero,” you say, “preposterous!”

Well, it is possible and I’ve been doing it now for about five years. This article¬† describes how I do it and should help you see why it might be something for you to consider doing this as well.

Because I’ll reference the diagram from Mastering Workflow, I’ve included a copy of that diagram here.

Personal Mastery Workflow

Terms Defined

  • Stuff – (I know, yet another technical term!) I have two in boxes, one is electronic and one is physical with real pieces of paper and sometimes 3-dimensional objects as well. It is important to realize that everything “comes in” to your workflow and you need to have a place for all of this “stuff” to collect.
  • Next Action – this is a critical concept to master, understanding the very next action is about differentiating between a project with several steps that take place over a period of time and a next action which is a discrete activity that can be done at one sitting. For example, buy a car is a project but visit the car dealer to test drive a Honda Fit is a next action.
  • Eliminate – call it trash, delete, recycle, purge or whatever… being aggressive (and honest) in what you eliminate from your personal workflow is an important element toward mastering your inbox. What do you really think is the likelihood you’ll go snowboarding in Tahoe with your old high school buddies… from 30 years ago… okay, maybe it goes on the Someday list.
  • Incubate – are you unsure what to do next? Are you unsure whether you even want to act on that item? Let it incubate. If you allow a place where you can store something – outside of your inbox – where you’ll allow things to sit while your energies are absorbed elsewhere, you will be well on your way toward a zero inbox.
  • Reference – things you will need to refer to – either short term or long term – and do not have an easy way of retrieving from other sources. My rule here is: if I created it I keep it, if someone else created it they keep it (unless I know I’ll need it and don’t trust them to be able to find it.)
  • Project – any set of more than one next action, i.e., most of what we do!
  • Delegate – may include the traditional form of, “give it to a trusted employee” or other more modern variations of shifting responsibility from you to someone else. Often, others have more interest in seeing something done than you do, if this is the case both of you will feel better if they “own” it rather than you!
  • Appointment – again, may include the traditional form of, “having a meeting” in person (face-to-face or f2f) or via teleconference. When this is the case, I recommend keeping your notes and agenda items in the appointment window of the calendar itself, that way you always know where to find your notes when you need them, automatically. Also keep in mind, if something has to be done, even if it is only you who will do it, it will take time to complete. I recommend you schedule an appointment with yourself for completion.
  • Waiting For – some of my biggest worries are when I cannot trust other people to follow-up on a commitment. If someone has made a promise to deliver on a specific date, that commitment can be added to your calendar or to an action list called “Waiting For”. This allows you to free the thought from your head without worrying the task will fall through the cracks.

Inbox at Zero… HOW?

“Wait, didn’t you say you’d help me get and keep my inbox at zero?!”

Consider the nature of your work. Are you in a role where immediate response is required within a certain number of minutes? If you work in a call center, that’s probably the case. In that environment, there is software that automatically adjusts messages to various operators for response. Most of the rest of us, however, have to manage the volume ourselves.

My work allows me to “batch” email. Batching means I allow email to accumulate over a period and then go through it from top to bottom at a single sitting. I even go one step further, I plan time in my day for this batch processing. By dealing with messages first thing in the morning and before I finish for the day, I can usually handle 98% of my work. I’m still responding within one work day or less and I am not constantly facing interruptions to complete the work I’ve committed.

The goal is for my inbox to be zero when I finish the day. I DO NOT handle email as it arrives except in special circumstances. Instead, the inbox is sorted (or triaged) and I work from specific action lists during the rest of the day. In order, my attention rotates through:

  1. Calendar: appointments – these have to be done at a specific time.
  2. Calendar: All Day appointments – these have to be done today, but have no specific time assigned.
  3. Waiting For List – I’m waiting for someone else to respond
  4. To Do List – these tend to be more urgent (since they came in email)
  5. Task List – these tend to be bigger project-related items and things that come into my system from means other than email

[This little list is probably worth another article in and of itself! Stay tuned.]

The Two Minute Rule

Essential to the goal of an empty inbox, is the two minute rule. Simply put, if you can complete something in about two minutes, do it on the spot. If it is going to take longer “put it in your system,” that is delegate or defer it.

By limiting yourself to two minutes you allow yourself to get through even a large inbox quickly. It takes discipline, but it pays in spades! Imagine this scenario, you are cruising through your email and finding a couple of minor bombshells. You are scheduling them into your system and making good headway. Then you find a potential crisis that could cause a three week delay in your project. Immediately, you on it. Three hours later, problem resolved, you get back to your inbox. At the bottom of the list – which is in the middle now because you’ve had another 50 email messages in the past 3 hours – is a message from your boss’ boss (your boss is on vacation) asking you postpone the project until the start of the next quarter. Oops!

Always triage your inbox to zero before starting problem solving.

Maybe It Shouldn’t Be Handled Via eMail?

While email can feel efficient — “I handled 200 email messages today!” — it may not be effective. Consider the type of issue, the relationship you have (or should have) with the other correspondent and the complexity of the issues involved. See this two part article for a detailed description of how The Message Dictates the Media.

One handy rule, if you find a response to a message simply elicits another message, maybe the phone would be a better tool — or, better yet, a visit in person. For me, if I find myself knee deep into my third response to a “simple” question, I generally pick up the phone and deal with the issue by voice rather than in writing. Sometimes, being effective requires using the right tool.

More Information

Click here for a copy of the slides used in a Mastermind Presentation on this topic on 18 MAY 2009.

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