Monday, November 26, 2007

Time Management

If you are like me, you're probably struggling to do everything you planned to do in a day. I finally reached a breaking point when I said enough is enough, I just can't do everything that I think should be done.

And that was the first step in the process of getting help for my disorganized Time Management ways: acknowledging that I do have a problem.

The second step was to research and identify the solution.

The third and final step was to implement the solution.

Sounds simple? It actually was!

There is a whole bunch of resources available for dealing with Time Management issues, I list some of them at the bottom of this page. By far my most favored methodology is David Allen's Getting This Done (GTD). However, my needs are quite unique, so I adapted what I thought were the best parts from several methods and put them together into a simple system that works for me. Here is the gist of that system:

  1. I write things down in an organized way to keep them out of my mind and to allow me to concentrate on performing the tasks that need to get done. As David Allen says, if it's on your mind, it's probably not getting done!
  2. I identify and schedule my priorities based on the importance, instead of prioritizing my schedules

I realized it is a physical impossibility to do everything that is (or seems to be) on my plate. I needed a system to prioritize my tasks, and such a system is based on Importance rather than Urgency of the tasks.

Here's an idea from Time Management Presentation. Consider a two dimensional space, one axis being Clock (time) and the other being Compass (importance). On such a plane we can visualize four Quadrants:

Quadrant 1: Clock: Urgent and Compass: Important
Quadrant 2: Clock: Not Urgent and Compass: Important
Quadrant 3: Clock: Urgent and Compass: Not Important
Quadrant 4: Clock: Not Urgent and Compass: Not Important

Items in Quadrant 1 need to be actively managed, this is the necessity, they need to be scheduled, the What's The Next Action question needs to be answered and acted upon.

Items in Quadrant 2 represent the actions we need to be focusing on, thinking about, and scheduling for the future action, because if they are truly important, then sometimes in the future they will become urgent.

Items in Quadrant 3 represent deception: why are they urgent if they are not important? Either reassess them in terms of importance or move them to Quadrant 4

Items in Quadrant 4 should be avoided, they are not urgent and not important. At best, they belong to the Maybe Later... category.

I realize that not everybody thinks in terms of a two-dimensional space, so here is a simpler, linear version of the quadrants:

The concept is simple:
  1. When a new task is created, you place it in one of the four Quadrants, based on it's Importance and Urgency.
  2. Every morning, review the items in Quadrant 2 (Short List). They are all important, so select the few that are the most urgent and move them to the Quadrant 1 (your Next Actions). These are the tasks you'll be working on today!
  3. Every week (it's Friday afternoon for me) reassess items in all categories, but especially in Quadrant 3 (the deceptively urgent tasks). Will you have time to work on any of them next week? Did any of them become less urgent or more important? Move them around accordingly.

The concept is simple and once you get a hang of it, it really works great. The last question, however, is, how exactly do you do that?

Well, you can start with simple 3x5 index cards. Write a task on a card, then place it in one of the four envelopes or manila folders. Reprioritization is as simple as moving index cards from one envelope or folder to another. Once a task is completed, you throw away the card. There is really no excuse not to try it.

Some of us prefer the electronic tools. Here is a choice of free internet based tools that are great for organizing and prioritizing your tasks:

  1. Remember The Milk - Forget the stupid name, this is actually a full featured, easy to use electronic system for managing tasks and appointments. I was using it for several months, until I found Todoist
  2. Todoist - This is my current system, check it out, if it goes away my life will just crumble away.
  3. Nozbe - Full featured, powerful, yet easy to use GTD system. If I wasn't already using Todoist, it would be difficult to decide between Nozbe and RTM.

So how do I use Todoist?

Look at the screen shot above. I have several projects, such as Work, Garden, Home, etc.

Each project is divided into Categories providing context for the tasks, such as Wiki, Chapter 2, Black Belt Mentoring, etc.

Within each Category there are color coded Tasks. Red is Quadrant 1 (my Next Actions), Blue is Quadrant 2 (Short List), Green is quadrant 3 (Long List) and Black is Quadrant 4 (Someday, maybe...)

Every morning I select my Next Actions for the day and change their color to Red.

Every week I re-evaluate the entire list and change the colors accordingly.

As the new tasks arrive, I quickly assess where they belong and file them away. However, if there is anything that could be done in 2 minutes or less, I just do it.

Finally, here is a list of additional resources containing tons of good Time Management hints and information:

  1. The Rule of 24 an informative PowerPoint presentation
  2. Time Management another good PowerPoint presentation
  3. David Allen's GTD site - the best of the best, at least in terms of the quality of information, not necessarily the ease of finding it
  4. 43 Folders - GTD inspired site and blog, lots of great tips, worth getting the RSS feed from this one.
  5. Tips for getting organized and get things done - as the name suggests...
  6. GTD Blog - a portal to hundreds of GTD links, I haven't explored them all yet...
  7. What's the Next Action blog - another GTD inspired blog, also worth getting the RSS feed
  8. YouTube GTD search results - surprise, surprise, YouTube has great GTD videos, including Dave Allen's presentations.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Do You Multitask?

Last night I read an interesting, albeit older article from International Herald Tribune "A Warning On The Limits Of Multitasking"

Some of us, one could say most of us, think that juggling several tasks at the same time makes us more productive. After all, teenagers do that all the time, like my youngest son, he does his homework, IMs several friends and listens to the music, all at the same time. That makes him very productive, right?

Not quite. Recent studies indicate unequivocally that cramming too many tasks into a short time frame not only increases the total task duration, but also compromises the quality of the results. The clear recommendation is to turn off that tv, change radio station from songs with lyrics to soothing background sounds, forget IM and don't answer email.

"Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes," said David Mayer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. "Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information."

Rene Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University says that a core limitation of our brain is its inability to concentrate on two things or more at once.

It does, therefore, make sense to do several simple things to increase your productivity:

  • Turn off the sound that your computer makes when a new email arrives, turn off that visual clue in the lower right corner announcing new email message. Here's how to do it:
    1. On the Tools menu, click Options.
    2. On the Preferences tab, click E-mail Options, and then click Advanced E-mail Options.
    3. Under When new items arrive in my Inbox, clear the Display a New Mail Desktop Alert (default Inbox only) check box.
    4. If you want to, you can suppress other notifications such as playing sounds, changing the mouse pointer, or displaying an envelope icon in the notification area. To do this clear the Play a sound, Briefly change the mouse cursor, or Show an envelope icon in the notification area check box, respectively.
  • Check emails only infrequently, say at the top of each hour. Then either act on them right away, delete them, delegate them to somebody else, or mark them as Deferred or Archived.
  • Make your status as Do Not Disturbed on the Office Communicator for most of the day, make yourself available only, say, in the mornings and in the afternoons.
  • Focus all of your energies on the task before you. Define what that task is (your Next Action), then stay focused until the task is done.
  • Keep a journal of your tasks and activities, organize it so that it makes sense to you. You can do it either on paper or on the wiki.
  • If you don't know how to start a journal, get a stack of 3 x 5 index cards and write down what's on your mind. The purpose is to get things out of your mind and on the paper, so you can focus your thoughts on what needs to be done now. In the meantime, start organizing your index cards. They will reveal the structure of your journal when you're ready to start it.

For more information follow these links:

  1. 43 Folders - Blog and a family of web sites by a productivity guru Merlin Mann.
  2. The Bumble Bee - Ken Thompson's blog about team productivity and our innate connections with the biological world.
  3. What's The Next Action - A weblog about Getting Things Done
  4. Zen Habits - A blog about simple productivity
  5. David Allen's Company Podcasts - The official David Allen Company podcast designed to help you win at the game of work and business of life.