Saturday, May 20, 2023

A weekly review and plan starter kit

 

"It is surprising how much I can get done when I take enough time for planning, and it is perfectly amazing how little I get done without it."   ---Frank Bettger,  How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling,"  1947


Every productivity expert I know recommends spending time planning the coming week.

Yet few people do it.

Why?   "Time."

Even the tiny amount of time required for a basic review, half an hour or so, seems like "too much" when you think you could be doing real work.

But there is a BIG payoff.  

You have more things to do than you can do in the next week.

Making a plan helps you choose the right work to fit the available time.   
Having personally experienced the tremendous benefits of this process, I want you have those too.

As with most new habits and routines, starting simply is key.  

So here is a simple "stripped down" weekly review and planning process that I hope you will be inspired to try,


Get a sheet of paper and at the top, write "review & plan for week of <date>."




Open up your calendar in week view.




Look at each scheduled event for each day, and ask, "Do I need to do anything to prepare for this?

If there is, add it to your sheet of paper. 

For example, from my review this week: "Find directions to the room at the hospital for the Tuesday presentation, and copy my slides to a thumb drive to take as backup."

When you are done with Monday - you guessed it! - look at Tuesday and on through the week.

Now look at the next 3 weeks (or farther out if you like),

Scan for upcoming deadlines, big meetings, or other events that you should start preparing for in the coming week.

If there is, add it to your sheet of paper.

For example, several years ago, I found a trip scheduled for two weeks hence and discovered that I had no plane tickets.


Gather all the places where you store "to do's."



The "places" could include task lists, a whiteboard, a notebook or legal pad, a bunch of post-its, notes on your calendar or phone app, or your email inbox.

If that sounds complicated, think about starting a master task list, and then you only have to "gather" one thing­čÖé.

If you store things in your memory­čś× get a second piece of paper, and spend a few minutes writing them down.

Read each item from each location.

For each, ask "Is this something I should complete or start to work on this week"?

If it is, add it to your sheet of paper.

If an item will take an hour or more, consider putting an "appointment with yourself" on your calendar, or what is now commonly referred to as a time block.

That's it. 

Now you have a list of things to do for the week that are likely to be more important than the method of picking at random throughout the day.

If you would like to order the tasks on the paper by priority, please do.  If you have run out of juice, don't.

Instead, just select the tasks that you want to do on Monday.  Keep the list short - you can always do more if you have time.   Repeat that selection process every day. (For help, see The daily task plan: how to pick your MIT's).

Will you get them all done? Possibly not.

Actually, probably not. But as you repeat this process over time you will get better and choosing a more realistic amount of work to fit the available time.

There are other things you can add to make your plan even more effective, but that's for another day.







Monday, April 24, 2023

Yes? No? Maybe so? Ideas for thinking about whether to say yes or no to new work.

Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful, lest you let other people spend it for you.   - Carl Sandburg

Next week, I'm facilitating a session at a national meeting about the ins and outs of deciding when to agree (or not to agree) to take on new work.

It's a topic I know well from many years  - actually, decades - of saying "yes" more often than I should have.

While the ideas are top of mind, I wanted to share them here.  

The process has two pieces:  making a decision and then sharing it with the asker. 

I'm going to focus on the first part here.   The better your decision-making process, the better your decisions, and, the easier it it to say "no" when you need to. 

Between the ask and the response, there is space - use it!

You may recognize this as a play on "Between stimulus and response, there is space"  from Stephen Covey's book First Things First.

As  the responder, you have a say in the length of that "space."   

If you respond right away, you may be handing over control of the decision to the "fast thinking" emotion-based part of your brain rather than allowing time for your "slow-thinking" executive function to weigh in.

Some of the emotion-based reasons that may lead to a "bad yes" are guilt, people pleasing, and fear of disappointing the asker.  Or fear of the consequences if you say no.

So, don't respond immediately.  Give yourself time to think it through.

BTW, It's okay to ask for more time!  Just say you need some time to consider whether you have the bandwidth to do the thing well.

Then say when you'll get back in touch.  Wait at least 24 hours - or more for big asks.  

Consider this moral framework.

Speaking of bandwidth.  A "yes" is a promise.  If you make a promise and don't have the time to do it properly, that's a problem.  That is, by saying yes, you have created a moral obligation to follow through. The only other morally acceptable choice is to let the asker know as soon as you discover you can't do the work, either to renegotiate terms or apologize.  If you fail to come through over and over, your reputation will suffer, as will your own sense of integrity.

Whew!  Heavy!  

But for me, this was a revelation.  Understanding this framework has made my decisions to say no much easier.  It was not all about me, me, me, but rather about my integrity and need to do the right by the asker.   And sometimes, the right thing is to say "no."  

Is it your turn?

As members of a family, work group, or institution, we are all responsible for contributing.

This can be tricky.  Some people get asked more than others for a variety of reasons:  they like doing the thing, they do it well, they usually agree, or, nefariously, because of implicit bias that leads women and people of color to get asked more often for certain duties that may not add to their resume.

(To read more about this - in fact, a whole book - get The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women's Dead-End Work by Linda Babcock and her colleagues. Although the focus is on women in academics, the strategies will be useful to anyone who finds themself being asked more often than their colleagues to volunteer for not-so-important duties.)

You can also set up a priori limits on commonly requested activities. ("No more than 2 manuscript reviews per month,: or  "only one classroom-parent stint per month.") If you get asked after your limit is reached, you can say "no," confident that it is "not your turn." 

But if, after considering all this, it really is your turn, figure out if you can make the time to say yes.

Don't decide in a "self-interest vacuum."

I used to do this all the time.  The new work would sound really interesting, but I failed to realize I would have to shoehorn it in among all the other commitments I already had. 

"Wait," you might be thinking, " 'self-interest' sounds a lot like 'selfish'."    If that's you, please go back to the top, re-read Carl Sandburg's advice, and then just above to review the moral framework.

Now that we are on the same page, here are questions to help you assess the interest and time "fit" of the new ask.
  • Does this thing fit with your interests and/or goals?
  • Is there something else you will get from doing this that is valuable, like learning a new skill or expanding your network?
  • How heavy is your current workload? Is there really time to do this new thing? If you're not sure, make a list of everything you are doing.  (If that sounds horrifying, you already know the answer...)
  • Don't be fooled by "the empty future calendar" bias.   This happens when the deadline is distant, and your calendar at that time looks open.  Better to assume you will be just as heavily scheduled then as you are now.
If you decide this thing really is something you want to do, but you don't appear to have the time:
  • Is there anything you currently do that you could give up, delegate, or defer to later?  
  • If your boss is asking, can you negotiate about some of your current work?
Get the information you need to make a good decision. 

How much time is this likely to take.  Is there a clear endpoint? Would you need more resources to do it? Is there any flexibility in the deadline? Who else will be involved?

Then ask those questions of the asker, and, if its possible, someone who has done it before.

Consult with trusted peers or mentors.

This is especially helpful if the request is a big one, or if it comes from someone with whom you want to maintain a good relationship, or if you are early in your career and need a broader perspective.

Consult your gut!
"The hallmark of a decision in line with one's character is ease and contentment and an ample, even provision of natural energy." - Anne Truitt, Turn: the Journal of an Artist
I suggested earlier that certain feelings may lead you to say yes when you should not.  

But your feelings do play an important role when it's time to make the final decision.  For example, you may have experienced buyer's remorse when a decision to buy seemed so right and later felt so wrong. 

You can literally flip a coin to help tap into your feelings and intuitions about the decision. 

Assign "yes" to one side of the coin and "no" to the other.  Flip the coin.  

How do you feel about the decision that is revealed?  Do you feel relief or disappointment for a "no?" Does a "yes" lead to "ease and contentment and... energy" or stomach-turning anxiety?  

I know this sounds like a transparent trick, but it actually works!

And finally, if it's a big decision, write about it! Don't just think! The act of writing will lead to questions, feelings, and reasons that you might otherwise miss.




Wednesday, February 1, 2023

My New Year's treat: One practice that helps you keep on top of your work.

My new year's advice.

On January 11 - at the right time for new year's resolutions -  I posted this: 




If that advice is enough, stop reading and try it!  If not, read on.

2
The theory.

Your "to-dos" will always be way more than you can do in a week.


By making a plan you can pick the best things to do.



3
Want more direction? 

One of my coaching clients contacted me recently with this question:

Hi Susan,

I wanted your advice about creating goals or a schedule for the week, such as what you want to accomplish that week. I've been following Cal Newport since we worked together, and I'm working on my time-blocking for the day.

However, I struggle to get a "big picture" look at the week, or it comes to the end of the week, and I realize I made no progress on something I wanted. I feel like making a weekly plan is something I should do, but I'm unsure where to start. 

Thanks, Steven (NHRN!)

My response:

Steven, 

 The core practices are to review and update your calendar and todo lists (for me, my project and master task lists), and then select some high-priority work to fit into the week.

Here's a checklist to help you get started....

 

The checklist

The calendar
  • Add any scheduled events that did not get recorded. 
  • Look at each scheduled event, and ask:
    • Do I need to prepare in advance?
    • Do I have all the information I need (meeting location, zoom link, phone phone number, the agenda, the plane tickets)?
  • Add up the unscheduled time during work hours.  Assume that at least half of that time will be needed for routine work and interruptions.  The remaining amount is the most time you will have for project work and other important tasks. 

The project list
  • Read through your project list and pick the ones you want to work on in the coming week. Consider deadlines, importance, and the available time you just estimated.
  • For each selected project, write a few sentences about what you want to accomplish.  I learned this method from Cal Newport, and I find that this narrative format helps my thoughts flow so that end up with a better plan than when I just make bullet points. 
  • For each project, create at least one task and/or schedule a time block.

The task list
  • Read through your task list and adjust as needed: delete completed tasks, revise unclear tasks, and add new tasks that you think of. 
  • Select critical tasks for this week and move them to the top in your list app.  (Or if you're on paper, write a weekly list).  
4
Feeling some resistance?

You're in good company!  Most everyone does.

Recently, as I was extolling the virtues of the weekly review and plan to a client, she interrupted me to ask:  "How long does this take?  I have so much to do..."

My answer:

"You can do the core process I've described in about 30 minutes, or less.

Do you have 30 minutes sometime between Friday noon and Monday morning?"

But for the real answer, I'll defer to Frank Bettger:

"It is surprising how much I can get done when I take enough time for planning, and it is perfectly amazing how little I get done without it."
----Frank Bettger, How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling, 1947


Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The daily task plan: how to pick your MITs

I’ve written before about the benefit of making a short daily list of high-priority tasks that you will aim to do in addition to your regular work and before other items on your master to-do list.  This type of list is sometimes referred to as a “Most Important Task” list (MIT).   

In that original post, I gave a short list of criteria to help you pick your MITs.  Since then, I’ve added a few more, so an update is due. 

Three criteria by way of Captain Obvious

Tasks related to your high-priority work.

    Examples: 

  • Drafting the discussion for a paper.
  • Finalizing arrangements for the conference you are organizing. 
  • Revising the PowerPoint slide deck for next week’s talk.

Tasks that have a "hard" external deadline of today.

    Examples: 

  • Today is the last day to submit the application for a leadership program.
  • Your VISA bill is due today and you don’t want your credit rating to suffer by being late.

Tasks that you have promised someone you will do by today.

    Examples:

  • Bake brownies for the first-grade class.
  • Send comments on the manuscript.
  • Really, anything you have promised to do, and there is no longer time to renegotiate your agreement.

Two criteria that are not so obvious.

Tasks that start a chain of events leading to an important outcome later.

    Examples: 

  • Sending your travel expense to get reimbursement more quickly so that you can minimize credit card interest 
  • Starting the IRB application process at the beginning of a project, even though approval will not be needed for several months.
  • Emailing your friend in North Dakota to see if she will be there when you visit the area in 3 months.

Tasks that will prevent the need to do something else over and over in the future. 

    Examples:    

  • I recently took the time to research, install and set up the Calendly app, which allows my coaching clients to set up sessions on their own. Now I save the time I used to spend going back and forth by email to find times to meet and then creating outlook invites and zoom links.  I’m so happy!
  • Taking the time to delegate a task to someone else so that you don’t have to do it anymore.

One criteria that may be controversial, but I stand by it!

Tasks you have been putting off that you are so stressed about you don’t think you can focus on anything else. 

  • Once I do such a task, I can peacefully move on to the "real" important stuff.
  • The risk: Using as an excuse to do a series of tasks that are small or easy that you are not stressed about so that you never get to the rest of the MIT’s.
  • The rule:  You only get to put one of these in the MIT list per day!


Sunday, November 20, 2022

Not motivated? Try the assembly line approach.


Last week I looked at my task list for the day and then looked away.

I just didn’t feel motivated.

But I had a backup plan!

I returned to the list and set a goal of completing the entire thing.

To get started, I read the first task and then worked through it until completed.

Then I went to the second one on the list and did the same thing.

And so on, in the order listed, until every task was complete.


Why did this work?

I knew that if I took action, no matter how slight (in this case, simply reading the task),  my “motivation” would return.

It’s the cognitive equivalent of Newton’s second law: “A body in motion remains in motion.”

Taking action is what leads to motivation, not the other way around.


I call this strategy the “assembly line” approach. It is my nearly no-fail way to work when I don’t feel like doing anything or when I’m avoiding specific tasks.


How does this work?

Think about how a real manufacturing assembly line works.

The outcome of an assembly line is a product: a car, bottles filled with ketchup, and so on. A switch that turns on the moving belt has to be flipped to “on.” Once the belt starts, the unfinished product moves down the line to the next station to be worked on. 

My task completion assembly line has these same components:

First, I decide on a product, usually a defined batch of tasks to complete.

Then I take an action that switches my mindset from “not working” to “working.”

When I complete an item, I use a predetermined rule to move to the next one without having to think.


Step 1. Define your product

A “product” for this method is a completed batch of work.

I use this method for any kind of batched work, including a short list of tasks, new mail messages, email messages I have been avoiding, phone calls, routine paperwork, and clearing up papers haphazardly strewn around my workspace.


Step 2: Take action to "turn on" working.

When I am unmotivated, I need an initial action that requires no thinking—akin to flipping the “on” switch for the assembly belt.
 
Pick something for which you feel no resistance at all. In my task list example above, my first task was to continue revising this post! My no-resistance action was to copy and paste the text I had already written in Evernote (my note-taking app) into Scrivener (the app I use for final drafting).

I use a variety of these no-resistance actions. Among them: copying my last paragraph to start work on a writing project, opening the app I need, moving from the kitchen to my home office, or setting my Pomodoro app timer.

Each of these signals to my brain that it’s time to work.


Step 3. Decide on a method to move from one item to the next.

Mark Forster first introduced this idea by recommending the use of a "mechanical" method to decide what task on your list you to do next.

This eliminates the time spent ruminating (in my case at least) about “What’s the very best next task?”

When working from a task list, I just go to the next task on the list.

(Here’s another example. Close your eyes, put your finger on the list - best done on paper! - and do the task you are touching. Or put the list on a dart board, and have at it!)


Here is my assembly line process for four kinds of work to give you some ideas.

Tasks

Product: Tasks on a defined list completed. For example, my “MIT” list (the 3 most important tasks for the day) or a set of tasks I have been putting off.

On switch: Reading the first task

Mechanical rule: Go to the next task on the list.


Papers strewn about my workspace

Product: All the papers in the stack handled (recycled, filed, added to my task list, or the required task completed).

On switch: Gather the papers into one stack, and pick up the top one.

Mechanical rule: Take the next paper on the stack.


New email messages

Product: Empty inbox (all messages deleted, filed, replies made, or marked to come back to later).

On switch: Open my email app.

Mechanical rule. Start with the most recent message and then go to the very next one.


So really, who needs motivation when you have a method!

Monday, September 12, 2022

Updated article on email management!

The email management article posted on this website was written c.2016.

Recently I realized that although my basic recommendations have not changed, some of the details have.

(Drum roll..................)

The updated version

To pique your interest, these are the four sections:

  1. Strategies for reducing email distraction.
  2. A method for processing new messages.
  3. A folder system for storing messages related to current projects and events.
  4. Tips for composing better email messages.


And if you missed them, here are my posts addressing specific email problems:

 Some thoughts on preventing email backlogs.

A method for responding to emails you have deferred.

Want to spend LESS time on email?  Give it MORE attention!

FAQ: How do I deal with expectations that I will instantly respond to incoming emails?

and finally, although this is not just about email...

"Do I need to get caught up before I can make changes?"


That's all folks! 

(This sign-off is a "generation test."  Do you know the original?)   


Thursday, June 30, 2022

The shadow side of making a Plan B


I'm going to France next week for a vacation!

But I'm not trying to make you jealous. Instead, while planning for the trip, I learned an important lesson I want to share in case it will help you.

For the last year, anyone flying to the United States had to have a negative Covid test to board the plane.  If positive, you would be stranded for at least a week.

Being "stranded" in France actually sounds lovely! But, there would be hassles. Lodging, arranging another test, new plane reservations, extending our dog's stay at the kennel. Not to mention re-arranging everything already planned for that time back home.

I became pretty anxious about this possibility. I may have even lost some sleep.

I needed a Plan B.
        
Plan B:  "a strategy or plan to be implemented if the original one proves impracticable or unsuccessful."

The original plan was to get on a plane to depart from France. A positive Covid test would make that plan "unsuccessful."

For the next several weeks, I gathered the information needed for the plan. But, the worrying did not stop.

On June 10, I decided enough was enough and spent four hours finalizing a plan. I finished at 12:13 pm.

At 12:15 pm., I jumped back on the web to check out one more detail.

What greeted me was a New York Times "breaking news" headline. The Covid test requirement was to be dropped the next day.

I was thrilled! But then...

I started thinking about all the worrying I had done. 
Had the time I spent on the plan been worth it?
All this thinking helped me understand the dynamics of making a Plan B.

The upside 

If the original plan goes awry, instead of scrambling to make a plan from scratch in the heat of the moment, you can plan calmly, with the benefit of time and access to needed resources. 

Having a Plan B gives you confidence in your ability to move forward even if the original plan goes off course.


The shadow side

You have guessed it: Worry.
Worry (n).  “A state of anxiety over actual or potential problems.  As in, ‘he's demented with worry’.”
That was me. Demented. The more I worked on the plan, the more worried I got.
And then I thought of an additional dynamic: superstition.
Have you ever said, "I think I'll take an umbrella so it won't rain?"
My rational self knows this is a superstition, but another part of my brain believes it. I always take the umbrella.  It's not much of a leap to "If I have a plan for this Plan A  problem, it won't happen."
Superstition feeds the need for frantic planning. 


Ideas for dealing with the shadow side.

A little worrying provides motivation for planning. Incessant worrying is counterproductive.

The trick is to learn how to make a plan without continuing to worry.

I won't claim that it's always easy... But changing your "self-talk" (as used in cognitive therapy) can help.

Perhaps something like this for worry:

" I know things seldom work out exactly as expected, and most of the time, nothing bad happens."

"This worried feeling is letting me I need to plan. Any more worrying is of no use at all."

If mere superstition is driving my planning:

"I cannot control the future by planning. There is no plan I can make, no matter how elaborate, that can prevent things from going wrong."

However, - and this is very cool! - it turns out that there is a benefit to following some superstitions! (I thought this merited two exclamation points - actually three!)

From the psychologist and cognitive scientist Stuart Vyse:
"There is evidence that positive, luck-enhancing superstitions provide a psychological benefit that can improve skilled performance. There is anxiety associated with the kinds of events that bring out superstition.

The absence of control over a vital outcome creates anxiety. So, even when we know rationally that there is no magic, superstitions can be maintained by their emotional benefit
."
Who knew!

How to make a Plan B.
  • Do it writing.  (Typing allowed!)
  • Do a risk assessment of your Plan A.
  • What could go wrong?
  • What is the likelihood of each?
  • Which things, even if unlikely, would have the most negative impact on the outcome.  
  • For each likely event and each unlikely but significant adverse impact event, make an if-then plan:  
IF  this happens, THEN I will do this
  • Put the plan in a place that will be accessible when you need it.
  • Monitor your emotions and use self-talk to avoid excessive worry and superstition.

Post Script

You may be wondering if the time I spent planning was wasted.

No!

A plan B can be helpful even if the exact thing you were thinking about doesn't happen.

For the France trip, one of us could get symptomatic Covid and not be able to fly. If that happens, I can pull the plan out.

In other situations, you may do something you will do again. I have a Plan B for when I travel by air to give professional presentations. By now, I know by heart. Whenever there is the hint of a disrupted flight, my plan is ready to go.

Au revoir!