Thursday, December 29, 2011

What to do TODAY, Part 2: Tasks you aim to do

Welcome to 2012, and to a future of twice monthly posts.

You may have noticed that my last post was three months ago, and you may be wondering how someone who claims to have insight into being more productive could have let that amount of time go by.  I wondered myself! 

Although I am a master procrastinator, I finally concluded that my day job simply became too busy, and so I made choices based on the principle of "first do the work you are being paid to do."  It's a good rule for you to follow as well. 

Now, back to the 5 part series on "what to do today, "  a set of guidelines for creating an effective daily plan. 

If you read the first post in this series, you have had a chance to practice identifying the tasks that must be done each day, and hopefully, doing them.  Haven't read it? Its not too late:  read it now!

To determine if you are using the "must" criteria correctly, note how often you say "oh, I could just do that tomorrow," and move the task to the next day.  If you are moving items forward most days, you are not being sufficiently stringent - and over time this category will cease to have meaning for you.

Remember the rule: a "must-do-today" task is one that must be done today or a bad consequence will follow.

Category 2: Three tasks you aim to do today

In this post we add the second element to the daily plan: select three tasks you aim to do by the end of the day. Remember that these are in addition to the must do tasks.

Why three?

There is absolutely no scientific evidence that 3 is the most effective number. 

However, both "crowd-sourced" data (gleaned from dozens of blogs and books), and some experiences of mine support three as a good guideline.

Here is my experience:

First, if you select only three items you are more likely to complete the list.

The completion of a list is magic.

Think about a time when you made a really long to do list.   Did you feel as if you failed when you did not complete the entire list?

In contrast, if you make a plan to do three "aimed for" tasks and finish all three you will feel tremendously successful. You will be happier and more energetic. Your 401K will improve...  And as a bonus, you may feel up for doing even more tasks- which will make you feel even more successful.

Which do you prefer, the feeling of failure, or the feeling of success?

Second, asked to pick only three tasks, you are more likely to pick items related to high-priority work.

The completion of a high priority list is even more magical.

On a daily task list with no length limit, there will be usually be a mix of urgent, higher priority, and lower priority tasks.

Faced with such a mixed list, I know that I certainly tend to gravitate toward the easier, often low priority tasks,  and away from the very tasks I should be doing first. 

And because many days get away from me early on, I never get to the important stuff. Once again, feelings of failure, unhappiness, and falling energy ensue.

Forced to pick only three tasks, I almost always go for the most important ones.

"Pick Three" is a guideline, not a rule.

The number of aimed for tasks you actually select on a given day needs to be adjusted for your scheduled commitments for the day, and for the length of the "must do" part of the plan.

To whit:

On a  day in which you are completely scheduled in meetings / lab / clinic / class, you can choose to pick only one action in this category, or none at all. 

Limit your total daily plan to 5-10 items, with the total depending on the complexity of each item.  For example, if you have >5 "must do" tasks, or if one "aimed for" task will take at least an hour, pick less than 3.

On the other hand, if you have a day that is completely open, and with few "must do's,"  pick more than 3 aims fors.

Starting tomorrow,  begin each day by creating a daily task list of must do's (however many you have) and aimed for's (three) ).  

Although there is more to the story of "what to do today," by getting started with these two categories you'll immediately feel more focused and on top of your priorities.

Coming soon:  
Category 3: Tasks related to your routine work ("today's work").

Don't forget to subscribe (the little box on the right at the top of this post) to have posts delivered directly to your email inbox.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Time management for leaders - the real story!

Welcome to 42 new subscribers!  Don't hesitate to pass on this link to your colleagues;  the more the merrier.

I'll continue the series on "what to do TODAY" soon, but in the meantime, I had the opportunity recently to write a column for SELAM  (the Society for Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine) on the topic of time management for leaders.  I received permission to post the link to the article here, and so I'm "doing it now" (I hope some of you got this very small time management joke...).

First, about SELAM. 

Since the mission statement captures is so well, I'll simply quote:  "SELAM is a professional organization dedicated to the advancement and promotion of women executives in academic medicine, healthcare and the sciences."

If you are a woman in the health sciences, interested in networking with peers, and developing your leadership skills via a variety of venues, take a look at becoming a member. You'll get, among other things, a regular newsletter focusing on leadership issues; reduced rates for conferences; and an instant professional network.

And now, time management for leaders...

You have just assumed or accepted a position of leadership as a division or center director, department chair, associate/assistant dean, or dean. You have worked for years toward this goal -- or, you have been caught completely by surprise at the offer. Your thoughts right now are mostly, as they should be, about the things you will be able to do: develop young faculty, improve curriculum and training programs, build the research and clinical capacity of your division/department/college, and improve your own leadership skills, perhaps with a goal of bigger leadership posts in the future. You are anticipating new responsibilities related to finance/budget, strategic planning, and - please don't forget - managing personnel issues.

What might be missing from your preparation are plans to deal with the new demands on your time. In two decades of experience in faculty affairs, I have worked with and observed dozens of new directors and chairs, and I've noticed that these new demands often come as an (unpleasant) surprise.

To continue reading, click this link...

Enjoy!  Come back for the next installment of "what to do TODAY" - or better yet, subscribe to get posts delivered directly to your email inbox.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What to do TODAY, Part 1: Tasks that must be done today.

"Work, not contemplating work, brings satisfaction..."
                             Kenneth Atchity (A Writer's Time, 1995)  

Defining your values and mission, setting goals and priorities, planning for priority work, and getting organized all contribute to a happy, productive life.  Each is an element of the contemplation of work.

But unless you actually DO things, you  won't "get no satisfaction."  (Apologies to Mick and the boys.) 

Today's post is the first in a series about what to do today.  You can begin using this approach even before you have organized, planned, or set goals and priorities.  

You can start using this approach today.

I'm going to use the following categories to classify all the possible "candidate" tasks (i.e. work) for a given day:
  1. Tasks that must be done today  (urgent and important)
  2. Tasks you would very much like to do today (important but not urgent)
  3. Tasks related to regular routine work   ("today's work") 
  4. New tasks that show up to triage (often in the form of interruptions)
  5. Other tasks i need to do sometime (the rest of your to do list)
You'll notice that for the first two categories I have parenthetically referred to the "quadrants" concept popularized by Stephen Covey . If you are familiar with this idea, you will see that the first category represents items that would fall in Quadrant I, and the second, in Quadrant II.

Let's start at the very beginning...

Category 1, Tasks that must be done today.

This category is first on the list because these tasks have the highest priority for the day.  Surprised?   Do you think that the second group, "important but not urgent" tasks should come first?  Read on.

Here are 3 sample tasks, and the back stories that put them on the "must be done today" list:
  • call Jim about the conference planning meeting to be held 6 weeks from now 
        The back story.  Jim has been out of the office until today, and I know that he is leaving for a long vacation to Thaliand tomorrow.  Today is the only opportunity to talk to him.
  • pay my VISA bill 
        The back story.   The bill is due in 3 days;  it takes that long for the payment to get there electronically;  if it is late my credit rating will suffer and I won't be able to buy that big new house I have been planning.  If I don't do it today, something bad will happen.
  • bake cookies for tomorrow's 4th grade bake sale
        The back story.    I  signed up to do this on the first day of school,  before I realized how busy I would be this month.  But, I made a promise, and it is too late to re-negotiate or delegate the task.    
  • submit my abstract for an upcoming professional meeting, as the due date for submission is today
        The back story.   Getting an abstract accepted for this meeting is important for my career, and it has an externally imposed deadline of today . 


How many "must do" tasks should I have each day?

If you are following my argument, you will immediately understand that the number is not predictable:  it depends on how many tasks MUST be done today.  Some days you will have a bunch, and other days you will have none.  

Shouldn't I be able to eliminate this category if I focus more on the second category (important, not urgent)?

No!   It is true that some deadline related tasks can be done earlier, and so the more of these you do in advance the fewer items will be in the "must do today" category.  But some things simply can't be done in advance, and, the circumstances of our lives simply don't allow for everthing that could be to be done in advance.   
Can you be more explicit about why this category is a higher priority than the "important but not urgent category?

Sure.  First, each of these tasks has been certified by you as having importance, and failure to do them will result in measurable harm to yourself or others, or, an imporatnat opportunity will be lost.

Second,  once you have completed these tasks -- preferably as early in the day as possible -- you will feel successful and energized.  Just the state you need to be in to work on those "important, not urgent" tasks.  

Why can't I "cheat" and put an important, not urgent task on this list?

Hah! The part of your brain that does not like to work will always know you are cheating.  Including these items will lead the "must do" list to lose its power, because the brain "sees" that not every item really must be done today.  Once that happens, the entire list is likely to be ignored.  Remember, we will talk about a way to incorporate category 2 items into every day -  so stick with me through the full set of posts. 

How to set up your "must do today" list

1. At the end of each day (or the beginning of the next), take a look at your calendar and to do /deadline lists, and then inventory any items floating around in your head.

2. Ask:  "Are there are any tasks here that must be done today?"

3. To clarify, ask "if I don't this task, will...
     ... I have lost the only opportunity to do it?
     ... something bad happen?
     ... I have broken a promise to someone?
     ... I have lost the chance to do something important to me?"
4. Write down the must do tasks in a visible place. 
I'll discuss list options in a later post, but for now write your "must do's" anywhere that you are sure you will look at: a piece of paper or pad,  a sticky note stuck to your computer screen, an index card, a white board, the note section of your calendar (on today's date!), or -- a method used by a past workshop participant - written on you hand with a fine point Sharpie marker.  (I am assured that the latter holds up to several hand washings per day).  
5.  Cross each off one as it is completed.
Got it?  Take out a paper and pencil, and start now!


Learn more about it.  See Micheal Linenberger's Mastering Your Now (MYN), Note that he uses the term "Critical Now" to refer to "must do today."

Next post:  Category 2 -  tasks you would very much like to do today (important but not urgent)

** If you have a specific question or issue you would like to see here, add a comment to any post, or send the question to me directly at 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

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

You have 900 (or 9,000) emails in your inbox, papers and notes from the last 2 years scattered on your desk and on the floor, and a stack of unread journals that goes half way to the ceiling.  Your hard drive's clutter makes your head spin.

You have decided to make some changes, and you are asking yourself, "Do I need to get caught up before I can make changes?"

The short answer:  No.

The longer answer:  Absolutely not.  

The longest answer:  You get to choose. Getting caught up first is a good idea for some people, but not for others.

A small sermon.   You are in charge -  you decide which current work habits and tools to keep, and which new ones to try;  you decide what new methods do or do not work for you;  and you decide when and how to implement each.  No book, blog, consultant or coach  (even me!) should force you to change in a way that feels uncomfortable or disorienting.

The alternatives

1.  Get caught up first, and then start fresh with a new system.

The advantage of this approach is that you may derive energy from creating a clean slate. 

The disadvantage is that this method requires a high level of energy, concentration, and time. As you are taking several hours or days to clear out, you are inevitably getting behind with new work. The risk is that you will be exhausted, forget where you put things, and end up not feel very motivated to continue with your new plan.  

Choose this method if you have a good plan for a new system, and the time and energyto carry it out.

2.  Don't get caught up, just start using your your new system with current work.  Declare a backlog for undone work.

The idea of declaring a backlog comes from Mark Forster, an innovative and inspiring thinker about productivity and life.  Among the many things I love about Forster's work is that he continuously works to improve his ideas and methods.  I'll be sending you his way again on other topics.

Forster describes the backlog concept in his book Do it Tomorrow, (Hodder & Stoughton, 2008).  Here is the method:  Identify undone work (email, paper, files, journals, to do lists, etc) and say:  "I declare a backlog.  I will not work on anything in this folder/pile/box until I am ready later."  

Choose this method if the conditions for #1 are not met.

Why backlogs work

This method works, in part, because of the dynamic of what Forster calls a "closed list."  The stack of papers, contents of the box, or emails in the folder you have created can never get bigger, only smaller.  You will be motivated by a shrinking stack, as opposed to discouraged by a constantly growing stack. 

A second dynamic is that you will be energized by getting current work done on time.  This energy will make the task of going back to the backlog, when you need to, easier.

How to create backlogs

The key is to physically separate backlogs from your current work. If the backlog is a stack of paper, put it in a box and move it away from your desk.  Label the box "Backlog.  Today's date."   Do the same for reading material.

Your biggest problem may be with email.  Here's how to declare an email backlog:

  • Create a new folder named "INBOX Emails received but not fully handled before   <today's date>."   You can make a shorter folder name if you like, but you get the idea.  I create this folder in the same section as my actual Inbox  (in my institution's outlook, "Mailbox - Johnson, Susan R").  That way I don't forget that the backlog folder exists. 

  • Select all the messages in your inbox and move them to this folder.  In Outlook, use CTL-A to select all the messages.  Then, either drag the block of messages to the new folder, or right click on the selected messages and choose "move to" from the resultant drop down box.  Your folder list will appear;  you should select the new folder you created, and the messages will magically move.
  • Go to the new folder, select all of the messages with today's date, and move these back to the real Inbox.   In Outlook, you can put your cursor on the first message in the group, hold down the SHIFT key, and while holding SHIFT select the last message in the group.  Drag or right- click-move this smaller block of messages back to the real inbox. 
  •  Deal completely with today's email messages.  Tomorrow do the same.  And so on.

When should you work on the backlog?

I recommend that you work on a backlog a) when you are inspired to do so, or b) when someone asks you to do something contained there.

You don't always need to empty the backlog.

For email, start with the most recent messages.  Don't go there until today's new messages are processed.  After you have processed about four to six weeks worth of messages, STOP.  Most of what is left is too old to worry about.  Save the remaining messages as long as you like, even forever, so that you can find those that you might need in the future.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Make some changes starting NOW: quick start resources

I know that most of you are eager  to make some changes that will improve your productivity.  You can't wait to for my blog posts to slowly appear over the next  few months!

If this is you, here are some "quick start" resources.

Materials I've created

Something to watch.  In 2009, I gave a presentation to a group of faculty, resident physicians, and other staff at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. Here is the YouTube slides-with-voice-over recording.  It lasts about an hour, and several of the core practices are covered.  This is my only YouTube appearance to date, and you don't even get to see me!

Something to read.  Two of the essays posted to my web page are aimed at getting started.  Try them both:  Code O: recovering from overwhelm, and The basics of organizing your work and time.

Pick one or two ideas from these sources, and give them a try.  You can add more later.

If you want to buy a book

Today's count of books on found using the search term "time management:" 7,988.

I will recommend two of these as great "starter" books.  Each presents a complete system for organizing your work and getting it done.  While the two systems are not identical, they are compatible.  I have used a blend of these two systems for over 10 years.  You can't go wrong starting with either one.  

I have not given a link to a specific bookseller;  you know where you like to buy your books.

1. David Allen (2001).  Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity,  Viking, New York.

     A modern classic. This is the book that started the current massive discussion of productivity. 

2. Kerry Gleeson (2009).  The Personal Efficiency Program: How to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed and Win Back Control of Your Work, 4th edition, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken.

     Gleeson is a contemporary of Allen's and his system is the first one that clicked for me.  I am particularly fond of his "do it now" philosophy - more on that in a later post.

If you have a favorite book in the genre, send it to me ( ) or add to the comments at the end of this post. I'm always on the lookout for new ideas, and I'll share a more complete list later.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Welcome to the Thriving Amidst Chaos blog: are you overwhelmed?

I'm pleased, albeit a little intimidated, to start this new blog about the concepts and practices related to personal productivity, organization, time management, and the like.  Dozens of wonderful blogs are available on these topics, but I believe I can offer a distinctive take:

First, I'm a scientist, interested in evidence.  How do we know if making lists really helps?  Is there a real difference between putting to do items on a list versus putting them on your calendar?  And so on.  Empirical evidence is currently scarce -  but my aim is to share with you whatever I find.  If you run across a study, I hope you'll send it to me.

Second, I'm a physician, interested in options.  My approach to clinical practice is to identify all the plausible options, lay out the risks and benefits of each, and then collaborate with my patient to choose a plan.  Every productivity problem has several possible solutions as well.  None is perfect for everyone, but one may be better for you.  I will never say "and you have to do it this way." 

You can read more about me here.

As I was thinking about this first post, I realized that when I encounter a new blog, nine times out of ten, after I read one post I never go back.

So I've decided to give you my most important advice now, in case you never come back: 

You must have an emergency plan for stopping "acute overwhelm."  

Acute overwhelm is that feeling of panic, breathlessness, paralysis when you have so much to do you don't know where to start.  It is a hopeless feeling, and does not lead to much good. 

You can get out of this state of mind using this three step plan:

Step One. Stop and take a deep breath
Bring your focus quickly back to this moment, using this method which has stood the test of time.

Step Two. Slow down.
This advice seems counter-intuitive. You are behind! You need to go faster! Help!   The problem with going faster is that you usually feel even more scattered, and then you feel worse. Slowing down is more effective. The effect is to block out everything past and future, and to help you focus on what you are doing right now.

Step Three. Complete a task - any task.
Randomly choose a task from your immediate environment and do it.  Then do another.  Soon you will be in rhythm, and you will almost naturally turn toward things that really do need to be done.

Next Steps.  Start using additional simple techniques that will help a prevent recurrence - read this essay Code O: Recovering from overwhelm for more.

If you come back, here is the productivity related content you'll find: 
  • Overviews of the "basics;"  calendars, to do lists, and so on
  • Links to advice from others
  • Book reviews
  • Evidence-based discussions of common recommendations.
  • Responses to your questions -- send them to  I'll do my best to include all questions, although I may create a composite if I get several on the same topic.
I hope to see you soon.