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?


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

Monday, November 2, 2020


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:


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.

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  

Friday, July 3, 2020

Feeling Unproductive? Try a Done List.

At the end of a busy day, do you sometimes have the feeling that you accomplished nothing useful

But usually, barring an all-day Netflix binge, you most likely did. 

You just can't remember. 

Failure to remember is due in part by the Zeigarnik effect, named for the finding in 1927 by Bluma Zeigarik that uncompleted tasks are more easily remembered than completed ones. 

Not remembering can have negative consequences.

Instead of being more motivated to "do better" the next day, you may actually feel demotivated.  It turns out we are usually more motivated by success than failure. 

A better approach is to look at your day in a balanced way.   What did you accomplish? Did you fail to complete one or more tasks you had planned? What could you do to make tomorrow better? 

I use a simple technique that provides data for that balanced look:  the "done list."

The method is simple: I designate a spot (usually a random piece of paper) as the Done List for the day.

When I complete a task or a planned session of work, I add it to the list.   Do this in real-time, because you won't remember at the end of the day!

That's it.

You can make this list in whatever "tool" you like - but I recommend starting with a piece of paper.  

You can save the list or not.  I don't.

You can do this every day, or not.  I'm an intermittent user.

If you will be an intermittent user:  
A Done List is especially helpful on a day with largish blocks of unscheduled time.   

This is how it helps me with those days.   

Without a Done List, I often find myself getting off track. or spending too much time on one task.

As I record completed work, I feel motivated to do even more. This comports with Newton's Law, "a body in motion stays in motion."  ("Comports" is a fun word I rarely get to use....)

I sometimes do one more thing: highlight the good things.

At the end of the workday, I review the list and highlight (yellow, for me) completions I am happy about.  [This is a photo of an actual list from a few years ago. You can see that neatness is not necessary for the list to work!]

"Happy," otherwise undefined, is my guideline.  I go with my gut.   

Here are some ideas to get you started on your own definition of "good:" completed tasks you had planned for that day, that moved a project forward or allowed you to meet a deadline, or that were overdue. 

How to get started:
  1. Find a piece of paper. 
  2. When you complete something, add it to the list.
  3. At the end of the day, read through the list.
  4. If you want, highlight the "good things." 
  5. Take a moment to feel your successes.
Do it again another day!