Friday, June 11, 2021

What to do TODAY, Parts 2 & 3 Redux


Last week, I received an email with a new blog post from... ME!

This was a big surprise since I not written anything new.

More careful examination revealed that this post was actually published in 2012.

The "re-issue" was a complete accident!

(I was looking at old content in my blogging platform the day before, and must have accidentally clicked the "Publish" button. Yikes! )

But then I thought more about the topic, how to make an effective daily task plan. It's a foundational strategy, and most of you have not seen it before.

So, maybe not such a big mistake after all...

Then, I realized that some of you may be waiting with bated breath for the promised Parts 2 and 3.

Today you can exhale.

With no further ado: What to do today, Redux.


A paper template version for a daily plan:



Part 1: Tasks that must be done today.

Identify tasks that must be done today because there is an external deadline of today, or, you have promised someone else you will do it today. (That is, use external, not internal criteria.)

Some (many) days you will have nothing on this part of the plan. BECAUSE ON SOME DAYS THERE ARE NO TASK DEADLINES or PROMISES DUE.

Part 2: Tasks you aim to do.

Aim-to-do tasks are tasks you would very much like to do today, but that are not DUE today.

Aim-to-do's should be high-priority tasks that will move important work forward.

These are typically tasks you would not get to in the flow of a normal busy day. They are "in addition to" your regular routine tasks.

The list should be short.
  • On most days, three or fewer is a good guideline.
  • On a heavily scheduled day, you might have only one.
  • If you have a day with lots of discretionary time, you can increase the number past 3, but list them in priority order.

Part 3: Triage new tasks

Planning your day in detail does not mean it will go that way!

What will help you stay on track?

Triage.

As I am sure you know, triage originally referred to the battlefield practice of sorting persons with injuries into those who needed immediate treatment and those who could wait. It's still used in emergency rooms everywhere.

You can triage new tasks that show up as well - no injuries required!

The core question: "Must this new task be done today?"

If the answer is YES: add it to your MUST do's.

If the answer is, in your opinion, NO, the decision to defer depends on who is wanting the task done. 

If a colleague or someone who you supervise is asking:
  • Explain that today is not a good day, and choose a mutually agreeable completion date. (By the way, you will have now made a promise that must be kept by the appointed time.)

If it's your boss (or other "up-the-chain" person:
  • You can agree to do it, or, consider negotiating. You'll usually know instinctively which is the right choice.

If this is YOU thinking you "should" do the task today:
  • Ask yourself, "Is this new task either more important or more urgent than the remaining tasks on my aim-to-do list?
  • If it is, swap out one of the remaining aim-to-do tasks you had planned with this new task.
  • Otherwise, defer, and write the task at the bottom of the daily plan list. You could have a section named "to do when I am done with my musts /aims."



"Triaged" daily plan with new tasks added in red



Finally, use these metrics for evaluating the effectiveness of your plans.

MUST do tasks:
  • Deadlines are being met and promises are being kept
  • Tasks from this list are only rarely deferred to another day.
AIM to do tasks:
  • On most days you complete these tasks.
  • Your highest priority work is moving forward.
TRIAGE:
  • New tasks are (mostly) not displacing more important or urgent tasks on your plan.
  • All deferred tasks are recorded so that you don't forget them.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

It's resolution season!

I'm sure given the innumerable troubles of this past year many of us are thinking about making some.

If you are thinking of making resolutions this year, here are some resources about different types of resolutions, and how to increase the odds of keeping them. 

Most commonly we decide to develop new self-improvement habits.   

As you must know, almost all of these resolutions fail!  In one widely cited study, only 19% of resolution makers succeed, and most people give up within a few weeks.  

It's not necessarily the goal itself that is the problem.  Instead, lack of planning and follow-through, or starting when you are not yet committed to making behavior changes are common issues. Here are links to 3 guides to effective habit formation:

  • How to Build a New Habit: This is Your Strategy Guide by James Clear.
  • The Simple Guide to Creating Habits for a Great Year by Leo Babauta
  • Got a New Year’s Resolution? Here’s how to make it stick! by Charles Duhigg

Although "habit goals" are common, there are other options. 

Set a theme for the year.  A popular approach is to pick one word that exemplifies an attitude, value, or way of being you will focus on.

Author Gretchen Rubin suggests making a list of things you will not do.

Pledge to "just" stay in the moment as your life is happening.  Matha Ringer, another of my favorite bloggers, describes this approach as: 
"..go in the face of the unknown and relax into what is taking place trusting the solutions will be provided and listening for what to do next." 

My own resolution fits in this last category:

Focus on the present.
Go slow.
Be grateful for everything that is an improvement over last year.

Happy New Year to each of you!

Thursday, November 19, 2020

How I improved the quality of my phone calls.


About three years ago I started a practice which has resulted in an extraordinary improvement in the effectiveness of my phone calls.

I create a written "agenda" for almost every call.




How does this help? 

We know that meetings generally go better if there is an agenda. If we think of a phone call as just a one on one meeting, it stands to reason that an agenda should help as well.

For example:
  • With an agenda, you are more likely to cover what you need to, and in the optimal order.
  • For a potentially difficult conversation, you can plan in advance how you might respond to anticipated objections and so forth.
  • You may discover issues that need prep work in advance of the call.

However, my phone call agenda has one major difference from a meeting agenda.
It is intended just for me.

In fact, it's more like the combination of a plan and a script that allows me to conduct a more efficient and effective call. (I may also, in some cases, send a more agenda to the other person if it would be helpful for them to prepare as well.)

Some questions you might have:


Is this just for work calls?

No! All the same benefits listed earlier apply to personal calls.


When's the best time to make the agenda

No contest here. At the time you decide you need to make the call.

Where should the agenda be stored?

Wherever you'll have access to it at the time of the call if the call is on your calendar put the agenda in the notes section, or in your planner

And finally, should you make an agenda when you plan to make the call immediately?

Yes!

This is an easy technique that really does save time and add value.  I hope you give it a try!


Monday, November 2, 2020

MIT REDUX


It's time to revisit the daily MIT list strategy.

How is it going?

If you think you could do better, let's talk about some common problems and possible solutions.


The first: reality.

Have you noticed that some days don't go exactly as planned? (Actually, have you ever had such a day?)

Almost every day unexpected new demands show up, often eating up much of our available time.

No wonder our planned MIT's don't get done.

But if we are honest, some of that unexpected new work is more important or urgent than what we planned. Does that mean that planning was a waste of time?

Absolutely not!

Cal Newport explains it this way: (Study Hacks blog, August 14, 2015"):

“The reality of daily scale productivity is that plans are not meant to be preserved. They’re instead meant as a device for ensuring that you tackle your day with deliberation.”
In other words, your plan is your best judgment at the time about what is important, but those decisions may need to be revisited based on the events of the day.


However, it IS a problem if we automatically accept new work and put our planned MIT's on hold.

Instead, you need to decide if the new work takes priority over your planned MITs.

If it comes from your boss, you may have your answer!.

But often you do have a choice. If the new task is both more important and more urgent than the one you planned, make the switch.

The degree of difficulty increases when the request is from someone else, on behalf of a project they own.

Repeat after me: It's OK to put your own priorities first.

It's not only OK, but it's also necessary if you are going to achieve your own goals. This does not mean you will always say "no," but rather that sometimes you will. And often, "no" only means you can't do it as quickly as the other person would like.


Second, sometimes the "reality" is that you can't get yourself to do your MITs... 


I have a tremendous amount of personal experience with this phenomenon, which is ordinarily called procrastination


Here are some techniques that work for me.


Get in the right mindset. 

You must believe, and act as if,  your planned MITs are a priority.

Again, Cal Newport, from his 2016 book Deep Work. 

“… if you want to successfully integrate more ...(important work) ... into your professional life, you cannot just wait until you find yourself with lots of free time and in the mood to concentrate. You have to actively fight to incorporate this into your schedule."

These two "time management" tips:

Frontload. 

Frontloading simply means that you aim to do your MIT's as early in the day as possible.

Use small bits of time. 

This seems counterintuitive: shouldn't something that is "most" important need the "most" time. 
 
Actually, no. 

Your MIT may only need a few minutes to complete. Or, you may be able to start a task in a minute or two and finish it later. 

My tendency is to reflexively think a task will take longer I have available. When I finally decided to just try to do it anyway, I learned that most of the time I was wrong. 

Re-evaluate how you are describing your MIT's to see if you could make them more "doable." 

Here's an example. Imagine you have created this MIT: "contact Mary."  Day after day you find yourself ignoring it. 

What if instead you had written: "email Mary with the cost estimate and ask if this works with the budget." Are you more attracted to take action now? 

The explanation? Partly, the "cognitive load" differs between the two tasks. The first requires you to remember why you need to contact Mary, and to decide exactly how you will do it. For the second, you can simply proceed to act. 

The need to do that extra thinking and decision making can be enough to put off the "fast thinking" part of your brain. This happens without your awareness. All you know is that you are putting off the task.
Instead, decide what you will do and how you will do it upfront. Then, you simply execute when the time comes. 

Finally, make your task smaller.

"Write the grant." "Get promoted." "Buy a house."

Obvious? Sadly, this kind of "task" is all too common. 

Once again, cognitive load comes into play. Your brain can see that a lot of thinking and deciding will be needed to get started, and "decides" to skip it.
 
The solution is obvious: define a smaller bit of work that could fit into a daily schedule.

I hope these suggestions help you make your MIT planning and execution more effective.

And remember, any day you complete at least one MIT is a success!

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Do productivity and pandemic go together?


I considered starting this fall's blog reboot with ideas about how to weather the pandemic. And the myriad other "troubles" of the day.

But I decided to pass. I wasn't sure I could add anything to the excellent articles I have been reading on this topic.

So I decided to stick with what I know: sharing techniques you can use to improve your productivity. And my aim, for now, is to focus on simple methods with short learning curves that you can use immediately.

So far, these include making a daily MIT list, using a Done List, and starting a journaling practice

And there are more to come!

But this week I feel the need to make sure you have access to some of those excellent articles I mentioned.

Because, well, you are very busy doing what you do and you may not have seen them.

So here I offer "best posts I have read about living and working during the pandemic."

I picked posts that are relevant to "being productive," and grouped them by 3 big messages.


You are not supposed to be "taking this all in stride."

You may be dealing with grief, anger, frustration, anxiety, and fear for the future, or all these at once.

These feelings need to be acknowledged, and there are things you can do to help get through.

Tara Haelle, a science journalist, enumerates these feelings in "Our Brains Struggle to Process This Much Stress."

Aisha Ahmad, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education about "Productivity and Happiness Under Sustained Disaster Conditions."


Cut back on the news, opinion pieces, and social media.

For myself, I have taken to skimming the headlines and then moving directly to the food section of the daily papers...

Cal Newport, computer science professor and productivity icon, suggests how to cut back in "Give your Brain Some Breathing Room."


"Go small."

Focus on what is important right now, and not so much on long term goals. 

Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile recommends celebrating every accomplishment, no matter how small. 

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, the founder of The National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, describes how to make a short term writing plan in "Let's Get Ready for Summer Writing." (I know it's about "summer academic writing," but the advice works for any type of project work any time of the year.)

Finally, the Harvard Business Review has compiled its COVID-related blog posts here (and made them free for all).

I hope you find some ideas that help.

I'll be back soon with a riveting look at how to create MIT's that you can't resist doing!

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Journal! Who, me?

I have read, avoided reading, saved, and deleted countless articles on why and how to do regular personal journaling.


But, despite promises of more happiness, creativity, productivity, and becoming a better person, I could not get myself to try it.


The sources of my resistance: 
  • The recommendation to do it every day - yikes! Except for brushing my teeth, not my strength.
  • I already have writer's block (the evidence: 25 blog posts since 2011). Why would I want to have yet one more type of writing to avoid?
  • Directives to use a particular format or write about particular topics. I don't like being told how to do things. I prefer bespoke productivity tools, even if I end up creating something that looks very much like a method I rejected.
  • And of course, how would I find the time...

Then about a month ago, out out of the blue, I started to journal most days. I liked it.  I'm here to tell you how I am doing it so you can try it too.

Now that I'm doing it, I get it. The promised benefits are showing up.

Made up sample journal entry.



If you are interested, this the way I started :

(You can do this at any time of the day. I do find that morning works best for me.)

  1. Find a piece of paper. Although for this idea you probably want to save the paper, so a bound notebook would be good. (Or a digital app - I use Evernote.)
  2. Put the date at the top of the page. Maybe the time as well.
  3. Write at least one sentence, about anything that comes to mind.
  4. Stop or keep writing, whichever seems right at that moment.
  5. Do it again later that day (on the same page) or tomorrow or whenever the fancy strikes (on a new page).
I intentionally did not include advice about what you should journal about. 

Instead, I use a "no topic rules" approach:  Whatever pops into my head gets recorded. If I stick with it for another minute or two, inevitably more ideas emerge.

These are the categories that often show up, and the "results" that I often get:
  • Thoughts about a problem I am dealing with; sometimes solutions emerge.
  • Ideas for something I am writing.
  • The progress I am, or am not, making on a project or goal which usually is followed by ideas about how to move forward.
  • Frustrations about the state of the world.
  • Experiences for which I am grateful and things that are going well.
  • A plan for dinner.
If you want to read more about journaling, try these:
  • Julia Cameron's The Artists Way. Originally published in 1992, Cameron's method set the standard for personal journaling.
Ann

Monday, July 13, 2020

Not getting anything important done? Try an MIT list.

The problem.

At the end of the day, do you sometimes find you did not work on any of your top priorities?  

This used to happen to me all the time until I started creating a daily Most Important Tasks (MIT) list.

People sometimes think that if they know what work is a high priority, they will automatically turn to those tasks first. 

And while that sometimes does happen, at least two realities can get in the way.
  • Our memory is not good at remembering or prioritizing tasks.
  • The combination of routine work and new urgent work can easily soak up all our available time. 
We can overcome these realities by choosing our priority tasks in advance, writing them down, and then aggressively "shoehorning" them among those other tasks.

The MIT list.

A Most Important Task (MIT) list is a place to record your top priority tasks for the day.



To implement: 
  1. Find a piece of paper.
  2. Pick your 3 highest priority tasks for the day and list them in priority order
  3. Get to these tasks as early in the day as possible, in order to minimize the risk of running out of time.  Aim to complete or start the first MIT before you do any other work.
  4. Keep the list where you can check it frequently.
  5. Check the list one final time before you stop work for the day, and see if you can finish items that remain.

You now have the information you need to get started.  If you still have questions, keep reading!


The most frequently asked question: 

Since this method can not create more time, how will I get these "extra" things done on top of all my other work?

Good question!

While it is true that creating this list does not create more time, it can lead to better use of the time you already have.  
  • Work often expands to fill the time allotted. The corollary is also true: the time needed to do some work "contracts" if less is available.  If you do your MIT's first, you may find you can fit much of your other work into less time. 
  • Some routine work, as well as some new tasks masquerading as "urgent," can be safely postponed to the next day.    
  • Finishing an MIT can increase your energy, helping you power through the rest of the day.

"Operational" FAQs

Why "3?"

The number 3 is an arbitrary choice, but one that fits the rule that an MIT list should contain only high priority tasks and be short enough to complete.

Here's why. A long daily list will inevitably have a mix of high and low priority items, and two things can happen: 
  1. First, you will probably not complete the list, which can lead to a feeling of failure. 
  2. Second, a long list usually has several enticing easy items of low priority that can be completed quickly.  Personally, I am attracted to these tasks!   But at the end of the day, I am left feeling discouraged that I did nothing important.
To summarize, by imposing the constraint of picking only 3 tasks I am more likely to choose high priority ones.   ("Hmm... should I refile my stapler or file my tax return?")

OK. But can I choose a different number if I want?

Less than 3?  Absolutely. In fact, choosing just one may be a good way for you to get started with the method. You can also pick a smaller number any time you have a highly scheduled day. 

More than 3?  Yes, but only if you promise you will prioritize the list and stick to the order!

Even better, draw a line under the top three MIT's and below that line add the additional tasks to do if you have time

Some criteria to help you pick your MIT's
  • An externally imposed deadline is today.
  • You made a promise it would be done today.
  • The task will move high priority work forward.
  • You have been putting off a task, and this is causing stress.
Do I have to use a piece of paper?

No!   You can use any "recording" tool you like.

Digital: The note app on your phone; a "sticky note" app on your computer;  the "Today" view in a list manager app (e.g. iPhone Reminders, Microsoft To Do),
 
Paper:  An index card; a Post-It(TM); a Bullet Journal.

I once had a client (really!) who wrote her list on her hand.... 👍

Send me comments or questions at Susan@susanrjohnson.com.