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!

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Try this "day of pain and suffering!"


"Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task." - William James

If you are like me, your to-do list can get really long.

With so many urgent and important tasks on our plates, how can we ever get to our backlog of undone work?

One recommendation is to delete tasks that are not done after a preset amount of time has passed. One author suggested giving yourself only 7 days.

Yikes!

I don't know about you, but for me, that would be a recipe for disaster. I have tasks I still need to do even after seven months have passed.

I learned a method from Thanh Pham that has been effective for me. Thanh is the founder of the excellent productivity training company Asian Efficiency. (Do check out their offerings!)

Thanh and his colleagues schedule a full day to reduce their task backlogs. They call this day "Doomsday," because it feels like it will be a "day of pain and suffering."

Are you hooked yet? 😉

I have used this method for several years, and find it transformative!

How can this be? Like Thanh, I begin my day with the expectation of pain and suffering.

But when it is over, this is what I actually get:
  • An updated, current task list.
  • An immediate boost of energy.
  • Readiness to tackle the important projects on my plate.
Tynan, another blogger I follow, describes it like this:
"These things have to get done, and it's nice to bring them to a close for their own rewards, but the real benefit is how smoothly everything else goes afterwards. What a feeling it is to work on a big project with no collection of minor tasks nagging in the back of your mind."

An added benefit: finding tasks that are on the brink of turning into emergencies.

Years ago, I received a routine reminder to renew my medical license within the next 3 months. Because this was usually a 5-minute online task, I waited until the day before the deadline.

Alas!

The very last question asked for the date of my recertification in dependent and child abuse.

Hmmm... I had not recertified.  

I had until the next day to get this done. I located the 2-hour video training, watched it, completed the post-test, and waited for the CME office to send my official certificate. Miraculously I had a free schedule that day and was able to pull it off.

But, lesson learned.

The mechanics

I recommend an "assembly line" approach. This eliminates the need to think about what to do next.
  • Get out your list.
  • If you can order the items from oldest to newest, do that.
  • Read the first (oldest)  item, and complete it.
  • Go to the next item, and do the same.
  • And so on until the time is up.


FAQs

How often should I do this?

The simple answer is "often enough to avoid big backlogs."

You can schedule a regularly recurring time - I'd recommend at least every 3 months. Or do an ad hoc session when your list feels overwhelming.


Do I have to do a full day?

No.

If you can do a full day, you will of course get more done.

But, even a 2 or 3-hour session is beneficial.


What counts as "done?"


Does this seem obvious? If you have done the required work and crossed off or deleted the list item, it's "done!"

But two other outcomes also count.
  • Great when it happens: You decide you don't need to do this task. Delete it!
  • More often: The "task" is actually a series of tasks.
If you have time for the whole thing, go ahead. But more likely, you won't.

 Instead, pick the next thing you can do to move this item forward. Once you have done that, you are "done" for today. Replace the original item with the next thing you must do to finish this work, and take that up later.


Can I minimize the development of backlogs?

Yes, you can!

One option is to spend a little time every day taking care of small tasks.

Dianna Wiest, for example, recommends allocating up to one hour a day for this purpose. The hour can be all at once, or, a minute here, 5 minutes there as you have free moments between other work sessions.

A similar method, recommended by many productivity consultants, is to Do It Now!

David Allen (Getting Things Done) formulates this approach as "the two-minute rule." Any new task that you estimate will take no more than 2 minutes should be done immediately. (If you are wrong, just stop and add to your list. If you were right, you've avoided one more item on your list.)

What you can do next

If your lists feel too long, schedule a two-hour session and see how far you get.

If you find that helpful, plan another session soon to do more.

Then, if you find this method helpful, make a future plan using one or both of these triggers:

Schedule a recurring day or half-day
When your list feels too long, do an ad hoc session

Remember, this "doomsday" experience is not at all about pain and suffering!



Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Some thoughts on preventing email backlogs


Have you ever put off responding to an email for longer than you should?

Is there anyone that has never done this?  

I recently described a method for eliminating a backlog of deferred emails. (Make a list of the messages, and then plow through them in assembly-line fashion.)

This works, but wouldn’t it would be better to avoid backlogs?

I still let backlogs develop more often than I would like. I recently wondered about whether other people have this problem - which I suspected was true. And, what types of messages trigger a “non-response.”

So I asked my next client Amelia if she had a problem with deferring email responses. She gave a resounding “YES!”

And, she immediately rattled off these six messages types that cause her trouble:
  • The requester is asking about something that is not part of her job.
  • The message looks long and/or complex, and she avoids reading it.
  • She can’t tell what the sender wants.
  • She thinks the response will take a long time to write.
  • She plans to say “No,” to a request but is uncomfortable saying so.
  • She thinks that her response will unleash an avalanche of back and forth messages, or, as I call it, the “ping pong” effect!
I thought "Wow - these all are on my list as well!"

At that moment, the idea for this post was born

Not So Fast!

"Isn't it OK to defer responding to some messages?”

Yes!

The most common reason is that you are not yet prepared to respond, because you need to do something else first. You and your partner are invited to dinner next Wednesday, and you need to check with them. You are asked for input on a manuscript, and you have to read it and add your suggestions. You are asked for a decision, and you have to do some research and think. And so forth.

If I need more than a day or two, I usually send a brief message to say when I will get back.

Here, we are discussing procrastination: “to be slow or late about doing something that should be done.”

So, when does a legit deferral change into “it's been too long?” I can just feel it. 

I bet you can too.

Now, back to the coaching session.

For the rest of the session, Amelia and I talked about ways she could overcome her six “deferred response” triggers.  Here is what we came up with.

1 . The requester is asking about something that is not part of her job.

Hurray!  She should pass on the message to the correct person. 

I sometimes obsess over how I could take care of the request so that I don’t have “bother” someone else. If it is their job, it's not a bother!


2. The message looks long and/or complex, and she avoids reading it.

The only option is to dive in and soldier through. Sometimes it can help to skim the message to see if there is a clear “ask.” If there is, that will help her make sense of the rest of the message.


3. She can’t tell what the sender wants.

I recommended that she immediately write back to clarify. Sometimes you have an idea but aren’t sure. If so, say something like “I think you want the reports from 2017 and 2018, but I want to make sure that is correct.”


4. She thinks the response will take a long time to write.

I suggested three options :
  • My “go-to” approach is to immediately write a quick “bad draft” of what I am thinking I might say, either by hand or in a note app. (You can also do it in the "reply" screen, taking care not to accidentally hit "send!")
Most of the time I find that this draft only needs a little editing to be ready. Otherwise, I discover what I need to do next, for example, more thinking or research, or other tasks before I can reply. In either case, I have a path forward.
  • Make a phone call or schedule a meeting, so that you can clarify and answer questions in real-time. 
  • For frequent requests, I recommended creating template responses. Both Outlook and Gmail have an option to save templates for future use.

5. She plans to say “No,” to a request, but is uncomfortable saying so.

Usually, this is when the requester is someone we want to have a good relationship with. Whole books have been written about how to decide when to say “no,” which was outside the scope of our session that day.

What I did suggest is that once she has decided, she should not dally in sending her response. The sender needs to move on and find someone else!

I shared a method I developed for another client who gets frequent invitations to give talks at other institutions. She knows she can't agree to every request, because of the time taken away from her own work. But she puts off the reply because it is painful.

We crafted a template that conveyed “thanks very much, this sounds like a great project, I value our relationship, but I won’t be able to do it this time.” When it’s time to say “no,” the template makes it easier to get started.

I suggested to Amelia that if she gets frequent requests for something she never wants to do, she could also make a (firm but polite) template for those as well.


6. She thinks that her response will unleash an avalanche of back and forth messages - the “ping pong” effect!

Again, three options:
  • Just because she replied immediately does not mean she has to reply immediately again. If there is going to be a significant delay, write back saying “I’ll get back to you tomorrow,” or whatever is true.
  • Pick up the phone (or schedule a meeting).
For example, instead of: “Would you like to have lunch next week?” Try this: “Would you like to have lunch next week? If so, what about Tuesday at noon at the India Café on Iowa Ave.? If the day, time or restaurant don’t work for you, send me another plan that works for you.”

7. And one more, from my list: The “3 tireds:”

Tired of this email string with John
Tired of John
Just plain tired…

The key feature of the “tireds” is that you know what you want to say, but you just can’t get yourself to say it. Because you are tired. It's emotional/energetic, not a lack of knowing what you want to say.

The solution? Recognition that this is the problem. Then, you can choose to either plow through with the response, or, take a break and come back later the same day.

What you can do next.

Before you defer a reply, stop and ask yourself why you want to do it. Do you need to prepare before responding, or, are you procrastinating?

If it’s procrastination, see if one of the suggested approaches will help you move forward.

If it’s something else, see if you can come up with your own plan to try.