A recent article from Newsweek. Here’s the summary:
The Twitterization of our culture has revolutionized our lives, but with an unintended consequence—our overloaded brains freeze when we have to make decisions.
And this is very interesting:
The booming science of decision making has shown that more information can lead to objectively poorer choices, and to choices that people come to regret. It has shown that an unconscious system guides many of our decisions, and that it can be sidelined by too much information. And it has shown that decisions requiring creativity benefit from letting the problem incubate below the level of awareness—something that becomes ever-more difficult when information never stops arriving.
6. Many of my readers know of you through your very helpful blog. What is your process for blogging? For example, how do you choose what to blog on each day? What do you do if, say, on a Saturday afternoon an idea for a post comes to you. Do you collect post ideas and work from a list, or just decide afresh each day?
Most days I sit down at my computer at 8 AM and just see what happens. I maintain a list of potential topics within Things, but usually what happens is that an idea will strike and I’ll try to spend a day or two thinking about it and running over it in my mind. After a couple of days of ruminating I find that the words tend to come quite easily. Occasionally when the muse is speaking I will sit down and write out several posts at once. But far more often I write and post all at the same time. I’m not nearly as organized as some might think. But I find this adds to the immediacy, freshness and honesty of the blog. What I’m thinking today I’m writing about today. Or that’s the hope.
7. Why do you think Christians should care about productivity? (Or, dare I say it, if you don’t think Christians should care, why not?)
Christians should care about productivity. That’s not to say that they should necessarily be driven by a desire to accomplish more things in less time. Rather, they should be motivated to use their time well and to do everything with excellence. God is glorified when we use our time well and when we do what we do well. There can be productivity in simplicity, not just in quantity.
8. In the last three months, what has been the most helpful productivity practice or tip for making you productive and effective?
I think it is one that came while writing The Next Story and it involves reducing my dependency on technology. There are times when I feel that there has to be a technological solution to every problem, and especially to every problem created or exacerbated by technology. So when I find that I need to record more information than ever before, I want to find the perfect app to deal with the increased quantity. But in many ways I’ve found it better to take steps backward, depending more than ever on pen and paper. And I am honestly more organized and productive for it. Until I lose my notebook.
Second to that I would say it is trying to maintain an empty inbox. Few things feel better in a digital world than looking at an inbox and seeing nothing there. That’s especially true when it’s 5 PM on a Friday. Just don’t tweet your accomplishment because every one of your hilarious friends will send you an email to fill it back up.
9. Do you have any bad productivity habits that you think might undermine your productivity and which you are seeking to change?
Absolutely. My biggest weakness is distraction. I wrote a whole chapter in my book on the subject and still find that I succumb to it. I find it very, very difficult to shut down my email while writing or blogging or preparing a sermon or doing any other kind of work. And it proves a constant temptation and constant distraction. I simply need to discipline myself to shut down email when trying to focus on other matters. My most productive days are the days in which I do batch processing of my email and then shut it down and forget all about it.
10. What is the most helpful book on productivity that you have read?
I know it’s a cliche, but I’ve got to go with Getting Things Done. I think it’s also the only book I’ve ever read on productivity. In the end I did not adopt very much of the GTD system, but found myself grateful for the issues it raised. It got me thinking in valuable directions, even if the solution Allen proposes is doomed to failure by virtue of its almost impossible complexity.
As part of the research for my book, I’ve been interviewing various Christian, non-profit, and marketplace leaders. Last week Tim Challies graciously agreed to do a written interview to serve the readers of the blog as well.
Many of you know Tim from his blog at Challies.com. He is also author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment and the forthcoming The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion (due out in April).
I’ve known Tim for a few years now and am very impressed with his productivity. So I’m glad to finally have had the chance to probe him a bit on how he gets everything done. I think you’ll find his answers here very helpful and insightful. I’m posting this interview in two parts — the first five questions today, and the next five questions tomorrow.
1. Tim, you seem to be one of the most productive people I know. For example, you write a substantial blog post every day. You started a new publishing company. You completed your second book last year. You are an elder at your church. You read a ton. And it seems that you preserve a good amount of family time. Do you ever get thrown off balance and, if so, what do you do to get back?
It is interesting that you see things that way. When I look at my life I am prone to see vast amounts of wasted time. I often struggle with finding joy amidst so many wasted opportunities.
If I am productive, I think it probably owes to my attempts to simplify my life. While it is true that I wear quite a few different hats during the week, I have tried to keep each area as simple as possible and as clearly defined as possible. I attempt to focus on large chunks of time, so that I will dedicate an entire day to one of those tasks and then dedicate the next day to a different task. Thus on Tuesdays I work in the church office and focus on church matters while on Wednesday I work in my home office and focus on my ongoing work with Ligonier Ministries. I have a wandering mind, so focusing on one task at a time seems to keep me on track.
2. How do you organize a typical day? When do you blog, read, pray, spend time with the family, and get your work done?
At present I have three different varieties of work days. Mondays I tend to take the morning off and spend it with my wife (all the kids are in school, giving us time to go on a date that doesn’t require paying for babysitting). Then I spend the afternoon working and preparing a few blog posts. Tuesdays and Fridays I typically spend in the church office; I tend to leave early in the morning to avoid traffic, so I head home by mid-afternoon. Wednesdays and Thursdays I dedicate to my work with Ligonier Ministries, working roughly 8 until 5.
Devotions come before the work day and family time comes after. I can’t say that I always get the balance right, but I certainly do try. It’s the rare day when my wife and I do not spend 8 PM until bed time just hanging out and spending time together, even if that just means we’re sprawled out on the coach together reading.
3. What type of planning do you do? For example, do you plan daily? Weekly? Do you find this to be a helpful practice?
My life is currently structured enough that I do not requite a ton of advance planning. The one thing my wife and I have found indispensable is to sync our calendars once a week. We do this on Sunday evenings. I open up iCal while she grabs a one-week paper calendar. We plot out the week to come, mostly focusing on our weekly tasks. We make sure that we don’t have any obvious overlaps. It’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference by helping to reduce unexpected surprises (such as finding out that we both need the car at the same time). As my pastoral responsibilities increase, I find more occasions where there are good and necessary interruptions to the routine. I am learning to adapt well.
4. Do you keep a to-do list and/or a projects list? If so, how do you use them and how often do you look at them?
At my best I use Things, a fantastic bit of software (Mac-only). I maintain lists of projects for home, blog, church and office and check in with it every day. Practically, though, I often forget and tend to find myself updating it in batches rather than regularly. I keep telling myself I’ll do better once they (finally) add cloud syncing. I carry a notebook with me wherever I go and this helps give me a place to go to reference lists of things to do. A recent addition is an Action Journal which I use in meetings; it helps me make sure that I leave a meeting with a list of action items. That has proven very, very useful.
5. Do you set goals? If so, how do you determine which goals should be a priority?
I do not tend to set goals. I don’t really know why this is, except that I may not have an organizational structure to make sure that I attain those goals.
The only way to get the important things done is to put them into your life and schedule first, rather than trying to get the smaller “sand and gravel” out of the way to make room. The notion that you have to clear out the smaller stuff first, in order to make room for the larger stuff, almost always ends up back firing (one reason being that there is always more small stuff ready to come in).
Today on Michael Hyatt’s blog I came across this video where you can see Covey illustrates this principle visually:
(HT: Michael Hyatt)
Josh Kaufman describes this well in The Personal MBA:
If you’re trying to create something, the worst thing you can possibly do is to try to fit creative tasks in between administrative tasks — context switching will kill your productivity. The “Maker’s Schedule” consists of large blocks of uninterrupted time; the “Manager’s Schedule” is broken up into many small chunks for meetings. Both schedules serve different purposes — just don’t try to combine them if your goal is to get useful work done.
When he says “don’t try to combine them,” he means, “don’t try to do them at the same time.” Most of us have things to make and things to manage (and wouldn’t want it any other way), and Kaufman gives a good model of how to integrate both into your day without creating interference between them:
I typically focus on writing for a few uninterrupted hours in the morning, then batch my calls and meetings in the afternoon. As a result, I can focus on both responsibilities with my full attention.
That’s a good approach: a large chunk of time for creative tasks in the morning, with the mid-day and afternoon free for those things that require dividing your time into smaller chunks and going with the flow.
Having posted the screen shot of the top-level file categories for my personal files division yesterday, below are the top level categories for my work files.
As I mentioned yesterday, I’d like to go into more detail about the logic behind the structure and how to set up good file categories and an overall system that doesn’t bug you, but I figure it is better to post something brief and incomplete now and then also do a full version down the road, rather than just do nothing in the interim.
You’ll notice that while my personal file division was organized by area of responsibility, my work files are organized by department. Then, within the department files the sub-files are by area of responsibility for the department.
“Executive Management” means things pertaining to the overall leadership of the organization; it made the most sense to treat that as a department in itself. “Talent” means “HR,” because I think it’s better to look at people as people rather than resources. “BBC,” “BCS,” and “CDG” are related organizations that we work closely with; for simplicity it made sense just to treat those as departments as well.
One last thing on filing for now: It is possible to create a system that doesn’t bug you. I think it was about 5 years or so that I developed the approach I am using, and it hasn’t bugged me since. The actual act of filing is not always fun and I try to keep that to a minimum; but I never find myself having to think hard about where to put anything, discontent with the structure, or unable to find anything quickly.
Here’s the screen shot for my work files:
I have wanted to post on filing for a long time, but have not gotten to it because there is so much to say. So, instead of continually putting it off, I’m just going to post some brief things on filing now and then. Doing incomplete posts on how to set up your file categories are probably better than doing nothing at all. And, eventually, I hope to get around to a full series on the subject.
So, here are two pictures of my file categories. You’ll notice in the left-hand part of the screen shot that I divide my categories into 7 major divisions, which are:
- MP [= personal]
- DG [= work]
- NC [= consulting and such]
- General Reference
- Quick Access
I will save going into the distinction between these divisions for another post. For now, I thought I’d just show a screen shot that shows the categories I use in my personal files.
The organizing principle for these categories is area of responsibility. Each area of responsibility gets a file — if I have something I need to file for it. The result is that everything has a place. Further, it is easy to know how to create a new category if nothing existing fits for something — I just ask what area of responsibility it pertains to, and if it doesn’t exist, I just create a file for it.
Within these categories are sub-categories, which I will also save for a future post.
One other thing that I’d also like to talk about now but will save for later (among many other things) is why filing even matters at all when you can search your computer.
In the meantime, here’s the screen shot of my personal file categories (sorry if it’s small — just click to enlarge):
And here’s a continuation with what wouldn’t fit in that screen shot:
One other note: Just because I have a category of something here doesn’t mean that this is the primary repository of my files for that area. I also have paper-based files, which continue to be the main home for many of these categories (for example, bank statements, which I don’t like receiving electronically). My physical files follow the same structure so that everything is based on one unified approach.
Tomorrow I will post the categories I use for my work files.
From Harvard Business Review.
From David Allen’s latest newsletter (which you can subscribe to here), explaining why the world of work often seems so much harder now:
More and more these days I find that people in my seminars are resonating to the importance of defining our work. The challenge many of us face is to not only track, but accurately label all of our projects, and hang on to those “stakes in the ground” while the rest of the world seems to want to blow us away from them like we’re in a hurricane.
How many of you don’t have time to do your work, because you have so much work to do??!!
How many of you, in your jobs, are only doing what you were hired to do? (I never get one affirmative response in any group I query!)
I credit the late Peter Drucker for framing this issue better than anyone, from the macro perspective. He indicates that whereas fifty years ago 80% of our work force made its living by making or moving things, that number is now less than 20%. And that “knowledge work” demands a completely different paradigm of focus than we have been trained in as a professional culture.
The good news about making or moving something is that when you come to work, un-made and un-moved things make it real easy to know how to spend your day. You do not need “personal organization” other than the work that is obviously and visibly at hand. The bad news is that these days only a small percentage of us get to work and know what to do. The rest of us have to make it up. And very few (if any) of the people we interact with seem to be supporting our agenda.
So, it becomes critical for each of us to maintain a complete and accurately defined list of Projects, and to ensure that we review these at least weekly with real sincerity of focus, creating and capturing all the “oh yeah, that reminds me, I need to…” kind of next actions that need to happen to make our “work” happen.
This needs to include all the professional and personal projects about which you would like ideally for something to be happening during the course of an operational week. “R&D new camera”, “Finalize budget implementation”, “Refinance house”, “Reorganize office”, etc.
We were only trained and equipped in our culture to show up, and deal with the work at hand. We now have to train and equip ourselves, create our own targets and goal-lines, and tie safety ropes onto those outcomes to keep steady in our course against the winds of the world.
That’s essentially the thesis of my upcoming book and it was the main point in my seminar at the Desiring God national conference last month.
There are lots of reasons we care about productivity — we might want to have less stress, we might want to get more done in less time, or we might simply find the subject interesting in itself. And those are all good reasons.
But there are deeper, better reasons to care about productivity. There are, in fact, some amazing and incredible reasons to care about productivity that I am seeing almost no one ever talk about.
Chief among these reasons to care about productivity is this: Productivity is really about good works.
That’s worth saying again: Productivity is really about good works — which we were created in Christ to do (Ephesians 2:10) and which we are to do eagerly and enthusiastically (Titus 2:14). That’s why productivity matters, and that’s why I write about productivity. My aim is to help Christians be effective in good works.
This changes how you think about everything.
It means that when you are getting your email inbox to zero, you aren’t just getting your email inbox to zero. You are doing good works. When you are going to a meeting, you aren’t just going to a meeting. You are doing good works. Everything that we do as Christians, in faith, is a good work.
And therefore we are doing good works all day long — and consequently need to learn how to be more effective in them so that we can be of greater service to others.
And that’s where understanding productivity and productivity practices comes in. By learning how to be more effective in our everyday lives — in all of the work and projects and initiatives and intentions that come our way — we are able to serve others more effectively.
Or, to put it another way: Everything we learn about productivity (and at all levels – work, life, organizations, and society), every productivity practice we might implement, and every productivity tool we might use, ultimately exists for the purpose of helping to amplify our effectiveness in good works, for the glory of God.
That’s the essence of the framework in which, as Christians, we need to think about productivity.
Several months ago a friend of mine asked me 3 questions on productivity for his blog. Here’s what I wrote so that it is easily available here as well:
1. What’s the most common mistake people make in trying to develop a system for productivity?
There are a lot of wrong turns that people make here, but I think the biggest one is that they simply seek to make their system capture and organize their existing work. We shouldn’t first ask “what things are vying for my attention and how do I organize them?” Instead, we should first ask “what things are most important for me to be doing and how do I make sure that I am able to move ahead on them?” The former is reactive and the later is proactive.
2. In the last three months, what has been the most helpful insight that has helped you be more productive?
Peter Drucker’s comment that “effective executives put first things first and do one thing at a time.” My workload has been larger than normal the last few months, and that makes it tempting to splinter myself and move on too many fronts at once. Drucker reminds me to avoid this trap. First, you don’t have to do everything. Instead, identify what is most important, and start there. Second, build momentum by doing one thing at a time, bringing it to completion, and then moving on to the next thing (what’s best next). You might think this makes it take longer to do things, but it actually saves time. The scarcity of time is precisely the reason we need to do one thing at a time.
3. In a nutshell, what is the most important and fundamental principle for being productive?
I would actually say: realize that you don’t have to be productive. By this I mean: your significance does not come from your productivity. It comes from Christ, who obeyed God perfectly on our behalf such that our significance and standing before God comes from him, not anything we do. Then, on that basis, we pursue good works (which is what productivity is) and do so eagerly, as it says in Titus 2:14.
When it comes to day-to-day application, the main principle is this: The key denominator of effectiveness is not intelligence or even hard work, as important as those are. It is the discipline to put first things first. You need to operate from a center of sound principles and organize and execute around priorities. This means that instead of prioritizing your schedule, you schedule your priorities.
The following illustration is fairly well known. But it represents one of the fundamental concepts of effectively managing yourself. So for those who haven’t heard it, here it is as told in Stephen Covey’s First Things First:
One of our associates shared this experience:
I attended a seminar once where the instructor was lecturing on time. At one point, he said, “Okay, it’s time for a quiz.” He reached under the table and pulled out a wide-mouth gallon jar. He set it on the table next to a platter with some fist-sized rocks on it. “How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?” he asked.
After we made our guess, he said, “Okay. Let’s find out.” He set one rock in the jar . . . then another . . . then another. I don’t remember how many he got in, but he got the jar full. Then he asked, “Is that jar full?”
Everybody looked at the rocks and said, “Yes.”
Then he said, “Ahhh.” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar and the gravel went in all the little spaces left by the big rocks. Then he greinned and said once more, “Is the jar full?”
By this time we were on to him. “Probably not,” we said.
“Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went in all the little spaces left by the rocks and the gravel. Once more he looked at us and said,”Is the jar full?”
“No!” we all roared.
He said, “Good!” and he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in. He got something like a quart of water in that jar. Then he said, “Well, what’s the point?”
Somebody said, “Well, there are gaps, and if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your life.”
“No,” he said, “that’s not the point. The point is this: if you hadn’t put these big rocks in first, would you ever have gotten any of them in?”
The point is: You have to put the big rocks — your most important tasks — in first, or you won’t be able to do them at all. The point is not to do more in less time, but rather to focus on doing what is most important. Covey continues:
Wit the “more is better” paradigm, we’re always trying to fit more activities into the time we have. But what does it matter how much we do if what we’re doing isn’t what matters most?
Our Quadrant II goals [important, but not urgent] are like the “big rocks.” If we put other activities — the water, sand, and gravel — in first, and then try to fit the big rocks in, not only will they not fit, we’ll end up making a pretty big mess in the process.
But if we know what the big rocks are and put them in first, it’s amazing how many of them we can put in — and how much of the sand, gravel, and water fits in between the spaces. Regardless of what else actually does fit in, the key point is tha thte big rocks — our Quadrant II goals — are in first.
This is one of the most enlightening articles I’ve ever read on the subject of time management. It puts words to a dilemma that I think many people (including myself) have felt keenly, but haven’t quite been able to put our finger on. Here’s the core idea:
There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.
When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.
Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.
When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.
For someone on the maker’s schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn’t merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work.
I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you’re a maker, think of your own case. Don’t your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don’t. And ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.
He then goes on to give some helpful thoughts toward a solution at the end — both in terms of enabling managers and makers to be in sync and in terms of helping those who need to (and want to!) function in the realms of both manager and maker.
(HT: Josh Sowin)
Below are the notes from a presentation I did a few years ago on my overall planning system. It also outlines some of the major kinks that GTD has (in my view, at least) and the ways I’ve sought to iron them out.
I do some things differently now and have simplified some things, but this has been my best attempt so far to outline a comprehensive, integrated approach to getting things done in a way that tries to minimize the kinks and rough spots in an “out of the box” GTD implementation.
I’m going to do three things: Give a really brief summary of GTD, identify some key things I’ve found to be lacking in it, and elaborate on how I think you build up the areas that are lacking into a total system.
Basic Principles of GTD
- Get everything off your head and into a trusted system that you review regularly.
- Make front-end decisions about the next action and intended outcomes for every input that you allow into your life.
- Organize reminders of projects and next actions in appropriate categories.
- Keep your system current, complete, and reviewed sufficiently.
- Trust your intuitive choices about what you’re doing (or not doing) at any time.
Things Lacking in GTD
- Weak on the higher altitudes—those above 10,000 feet.
- No valves and dams to keep you from overwhelming yourself with too many active projects. Most people I know who utilize GTD have 40, 60, or 100 projects. Nobody can execute that many at once, and it diffuses your efforts. You also get into the “ringing effect,” with projects bumping into each other, thus reducing efficiency.
- Insufficient detail given to how to handle time-sensitive and repeating tasks.
- It can feel like you are never done when you manage your life by pure next action lists with almost no due dates. I found that the next action list sometimes needs to be governed by “time zones.”
- The concept of “project plans” can really be built on.
- There is no corresponding type of plan for “operations,” which are just as important to our lives as projects.
- Consequently, there is no good place to put those “notes to self” like “eat less,” which are not so much beginning-and-end actions as they are standard operating principles.
- Insufficient attention is given to the need to be proactive. Why are these things on your list in the first place?
- When determining what to do next, my intuition tends to identify not just the next action I want to do, but the next ten. And it needs a place to document that in the next action lists themselves, so it doesn’t have to always “re-think” the determinations it made.
- This also happens with projects. When determining the next action on a project, I tend to think of ten next actions, not just one. I need a place to keep those. A more developed concept of project plans can really do something here.
- I don’t know what A-Z filing is. It seems to be the bad filing system I had before I even read David Allen.
- Little attention is given to how to best document ideas and insights you just want to keep for reference, but aren’t large enough to warrant a whole document.
- Tends to generate a lot of mosquito tasks. Mosquito tasks are killers. You need to know how to group them.
Building Upon GTD
Planning System Components
- Action and horizon lists
- Filing system
Beyond Projects: Creating Your Lists
The Six Lists
The six lists you need are:
- Next actions
- Mission statement
Where do you create these lists? Each list is a different task folder in whatever software program you use (such as Outlook or OmniFocus).
Key principle: You implement the higher levels by breaking them down into the lower levels.
The Next Action List
- Have the GTD contexts, and also have two categories for time-sensitive tasks: “Action calendar” for tasks you don’t want to do until the day they come up, and “daily” for planning specific things you want to do that day. “Action Calendar” is where repeating tasks go, and “Daily” is where you can prioritize and sequence specific things you need to do today, tomorrow, etc. Put a “@” in front of these categories so they go to the top; do not use the “@” in front of the other contexts.
- The next action does not always have to be super granular. If the next thing you need to do on a project is work on it for 3 hours, just put that. Trying to put the literal first action will not accurately represent what you have to do, so you won’t trust your list.
- Use your calendar to govern your list when needed. Create time zones.
- Some next actions need to be large. If you need to give 4 hours to a project, don’t just list the first action on it, like “call Fred.” On the other hand, don’t transfer to your next action list all 20 actions you think will be involved in that 4 hours. Instead, create a next action that represents what you will truly be doing—“work on project x for 4 hours.” Then, for specific details on what actions you’ll be doing, keep those in the project plan, and work from that.
- Have a distinct category for mosquito tasks. For example, “Home Computer: Mosquito.”
The Projects List
- Create a category between someday/maybe and projects. Divide your projects list into “current” and “upcoming.” Move as many as you can into upcoming, keeping the number of active projects as small as possible. Complete them as fast as possible, and move projects up from upcoming in your weekly review. This is really just a “10,000 foot tickler.”
- Use project plans by listing all tasks that come to mind for the project right in the Outlook note field for the item. Organize the list in sequence. Keep additional data in there that you might forget about, such as status updates, rationale, ideas to process, contact info, whatever you need. The principle is: List steps, keep details, review, translate to NAs.
- Use project plans to incubate next actions that you can’t move on yet in the project.
- Have a “monitoring” category for projects others are doing that you need to keep a watch on and toss input into. So your project categories are: Current, Monitoring, and Upcoming.
The Roles List
- Understand the difference between projects and operations. Roles contain your operations.
- Don’t limit yourself to seven roles, as Covey recommends. That’s not realistic. Put all of them in there. Then, group them into 6 areas: Personal, family, household, financial, social, professional.
- Create an action plan for each role, just like you do for projects. In that action plan, list the responsibilities for the role, and any strategies, principles, or operating principles.
The Goals List
- Understand goals as initiatives for change. Keep operational goals out of here, such as “to jog three times a week.” (Put that into your role plan for “exercise.”)
- Understand goals as groups of projects.
- Use goal plans, like you do project plans. Further, use them to incubate projects that you can’t move on until other projects pertaining to the goal are accomplished first.
The Mission Statement
- Have an ultimate objective, which is the mission sentence.
- Include in the mission statement other components as needed, such as vision, leading principles, values, and so forth.
- Categorize this list—don’t just have one catch-all. Categories can be thins like “Agenda Items to Maybe Discuss,” “Books to Read,” “Household Projects,” “Financial Projects,” “Skills to Learn,” “Movies to See,” “Next Time At…,” “Restaurants to Go To,” “Things to See and Do,” “Trips to Take,” etc.
- If you have a lot of items, it will be too much to review in a weekly review. So create another list that is just for items you want to review each week.
- Each higher level gets broken down into the lower levels.
- Keep dependencies in the plans for the outcome above. This way, each list is lean by only having what is current.
Being Proactive in the Weekly Review
- Don’t just mindlessly review and update and create actions for what is already on your lists. Ask why the items are there and whether they should be there at all.
- Pick 3-4 current projects that would make the biggest impact to things if you moved them forward. Schedule time to work on them.
- Review what you learned from the week before.
- Create a journal entry.
- Concept of big rocks.
Setting Up a Topical Filing System
- Have these major file categories: Pending, Projects, Operations, General Reference, Archive.
- Organize the project file by project name; I guess that here we have A-Z.
- Organize the operations file by department, and department by sub-functions. At home, organize your operation files by your roles.
- Organize general reference by major knowledge area. Always move from general to specific—don’t create a file called “California.” Create a file called “Travel: California.” Then it will be grouped with “Travel: New York,” and etc.
- Put small ideas you want to keep, but aren’t big enough for a full document, and things you want to make record of in journals.
- Have a journal for each topic and operational area that interests you.
Carrying out the Daily Workflow Processes
- Capture everything. Use a running journal. Process it like your in basket. Also keep paper pads and pens everywhere, and a pen in your wallet (for when your running journal isn’t with you). If your cell phone has a voice notes feature, use it to capture ideas quickly when you can’t write (like while driving), and process it like your in box.
- Plan daily.
Handle based on horizon it pertains to:
- Action (create next action, and make sure it really is an NA)
- Project or project support (create project, file, add to project plan as status update, task, etc.)
- Operations support (create operation, file, journal, add to support document)
- Reference (file, journal)
Summary of Updates
- Horizons. Set up the 10,000 – 50,000 foot levels.
- Dams. Build a dam in your project list to keep from overwhelming yourself. Divide the projects list into current and upcoming.
- Date-sensitive tasks. Set up an efficient way to handle day-specific tasks by creating a distinct context for them.
- Repeating tasks. Create a repeating task/tickler category in your next action list.
- Next action governors. Use your calendar to manage your next action lists when necessary.
- Operations plans. Become equipped to handle not just actions that can be completed, but operating principles that can’t be. Create action plans for your roles.
- Proactivity. Be proactive about what you do. Don’t prioritize your schedule; schedule your priorities. In the weekly review, pick 3-5 key projects to focus on that week and schedule time for them.
- Filing. Don’t simply have general reference. Have specialized reference divisions of: pending, projects, and operations. General reference is for everything else—just stuff of general interest. Don’t file A-Z, but by category. In operations, by department (at work) or role (at home). In general reference, by major topic.
- Journals. Use journals to keep track of short but significant thoughts. Have a journal for each major subject that thoughts occur to you on, and a regular life journal for events and general things.
- Set up certain recurring tasks to keep your system in motion. General examples are daily tasks to process in, process notes, process email. Area-specific ones might be pay bills, process financial data, review website, etc.
- Project plans. Implement project plans in the note field for the task in Outlook. When you seek to think of a next action on your project, and you think of five next actions rather than just one, use the project plan to list the other four, so that they aren’t cluttering up your next action list.
Appendix: Principles on Work
- People create work. For example, even if you go on vacation in order to do no work, the maid still needs to come to make the bed, take out the trash, and clean the room each day.
- Work creates work. Doing one task often triggers, leads to, uncovers, or requires another. And then another…
- Work takes work to manage.
- Greater efficiency does not necessarily mean less work, but rather usually means that more work will be attempted—which is greater in volume than the slice of time saved by the efficiency. This has been the case with increased energy efficiency through the twentieth century, and it is no different with increased time efficiency.
- The larger the number of dependencies among your tasks and in your life, the less lean you are and the more complicated your life is. Seek to minimize dependencies.
- You will never reach the end of your lists.
At the Seth Godin Live event in DC (about two weeks ago now), I asked Seth: “There are so many things to do that clamor for our attention and make it hard to focus on what we really want to do. How do we keep these things from setting the agenda and instead carve out the time to do work that matters?”
His answer was great. To slightly paraphrase, he said:
The issue is not “How do I find time to work on projects?” Rather, a Linchpin says, “I create projects that matter. How do I then carve out the time to work on the stuff they think is my real job?”
That is great advice. You’ll notice that this is simply another variation on the fundamental principle of time management: put first things first.
Do not fall into the trap of thinking that if you just get “all this other stuff” out of the way, then you’ll have the time and energy to focus on the most important (and thus, usually, most challenging) things you have to do. It does not work that way.
Instead, make working on the most important things — which Seth would define as emotional labor in projects that are worth doing and that you deeply care about — your primary work. Then, fit the other things in when you can.
One last thing: It’s not that the “other things” are always trivial or unimportant. Many of them (though not all) do need to be done. But the thing is that if you do them first, you’ll rarely get to the most important things. On the other hand, if you do the most important things first, you’ll find that you have the time you need left over for the other things.
For those who live in the DC area, I will be speaking this Saturday morning on productivity and the gospel for the Redeemer Roundtable, hosted by Redeemer Church of Arlington (a church plant of Covenant Life). I will do two messages, with each followed by Q&A. If there are any readers that want to stop by, it would be great to see you!
Here are the details:
The Redeemer Roundtable, hosted by Redeemer Church of Arlington, engages frontline Christian leaders in various areas of industry to discuss what it means to think through issues such as money, business and politics in a way that is Biblically faithful and contextually appropriate.
This month Matt Perman will be joining us to talk about productivity in light of our callings as Christians. Matt writes a popular blog on productivity called What’s Best Next. Matt is a seminar speaker at this year’s Desiring God National Conference and has spoken at The Gospel Coalition’s National Conference. He is also the Sr. Director for Strategy at DesiringGod in Minneapolis, MN.
Location: Arlington Temple UMC (1835 N Nash St., Rosslyn, VA 22209)
Date: July 24, 2010
Time: 9:00 – 11:00am (bagels and coffee at 8:30am)
You can RSVP to johannah [at] redeemerarlington.com
More good thinking from Michael Hyatt, this time on an approach to managing email with an assistant that really looks promising.
What’s helpful here is that Hyatt first discusses what didn’t work, and then outlines the process that they finally settled on.
Good words from Michael Hyatt.
Some good observations from David Allen in Making It All Work:
Working your process takes time. As I described in chapter 6 on clarifying, it usually requires an hour a day just to stay current with the typical volume of information.
That’s a highly productive expenditure of time, during which you’ll be thinking, making decisions, completing short actions, routing data, communicating, and defining and organizing new work. But it’s not the kind of activity you can do while you’re working on longer tasks or in meetings.
Though many executives find it useful to leave the first hour or so of the morning open for it, processing time is something that you may not find easy to block out. Some people have a stable enough work environment to allow for clearing the decks first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, but you may simply have to clean up your in-basket “between the lines” — whenever you can as you move through your day.
The critical factor is to be aware that it will take time. If you allow yourself to be booked in meetings through an entire day, you will fall at least an hour behind in your processing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as you realize that you will have to “pay the Piper [that is, John Piper -- just kidding!]” sometime soon. Many, however, don’t seem to realize or accept this reality and then operate in a constant state of frustration over having to make up the lost time. That’s like complaining that taking a shower eats into your day!
People who get accustomed to the true amount of time and energy required for these procedures begin to incorporate it into the stride of their life and work, instead of railing against it.
Leave the Office Earlier explains this well:
There is a difference between a responsibility and a task. For example, “participate in team decisions” is a responsibility; “attend team meetings” is a task. “Communicate with customers” is a responsibility; “write monthly ezine is a task.” “Obtain market visibility” is a responsibility; “write article for trade journals” is a task. “Develop media relationships” is a responsibility; “create press releases” is a task.
The distinction hinges on the question, “Why do I do this?” The responsibility is high level, and the task is specific. One responsibility may carry five (or more) associated tasks. If you can eliminate one responsibility through clarification, you may eliminate several tasks. You carry out tasks to fulfill responsibilities.
Here are some good questions from Shopping for Time: How to Do It All and Not Be Overwhelmed:
- Do you plan ahead to maximize your fruitfulness each day, or do you simply let life happen?
- Do you make choices based on Scripture or on what feels good at the moment?
- Do you strategize to use your talents to bless your family and church, or do you employ them primarily for your own personal fulfillment?
- Do you evaluate every opportunity in light of biblical priorities, or do you do whatever it takes to get ahead?
- Do you consider whom God would have you serve, or do you try to please everyone all the time?
If you have a tendency to work too much (or not enough!), I highly recommend The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. I’ve been dipping into it a bit and, while parts of it can seem like too much of a step-by-step program (for lack of a better term) at times, it has a lot of helpful insight.
Here are a few quotes:
“Managing time efficiently is no guarantee that we will bring sufficient energy to whatever we are doing” (4).
“The performance demands that most people face in their everyday work environments dwarf those of any professional athletes we have every trained” (8).
“Sadly, the need for recovery is often viewed as evidence of weakness rather than as an integral aspect of sustained performance” (12).
Maximum performance comes by “alternating periods of activity with periods of rest” (28).
“Nearly every elite athlete we have worked with over the years has come to us with performance problems that could be traced to an imbalance between the expenditure and the recovery of energy. They were either overtraining or undertraining in one or more dimensions — physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually. Both overtraining and undertraining have performance consequences that include persistent injuries and sickness, anxiety, negativey and anger, difficulty concentrating, and loss of pasion. We achieved our breakthroughs with athletes by helping them to more skillfully manage energy — pushing themselves to systematically increase capacity in whatever dimension it was insufficient, but also to build in regular recovery as part of their training regimens. Balancing stress and recovery is critical not just in competitive sports, but also in managing energy in all facets of our lives. When we expend energy, we draw down our reservoir. When we recover energy, we fill it back up. Too much energy expenditure without sufficient recovery eventually leads to burnout and breakdown. (Overuse it and lose it.) Too much recovery without sufficient stress leads to atrophy and weakness. (Use it or lose it.)” (29)
“To the degree that leaders and managers build cultures around continuous work…performance is necessarily compromised over time. Cultures that encourage people to seek intermittent renewal not only inspire greater commitment, but also more productivity” (30).
“You can always find reasons to work. There will always be one more thing to do, but when people don’t take time out, they stop being productive” (35).
“When we operate at a high enough intensity for long enough, we progressively lose the capacity to shift to another gear” (39).
By advocating that we don’t overwork, however, they aren’t arguing that we coast. Rather, the periods of activity should often push us beyond our limits. The key is that you also have to punctuate these times with sufficient periods of rest and recovery. Here’s a good overall summary of that point, which is one of the key points of the book:
“When we first suggested to Roger B. that he lacked sufficient capacity in part because he hadn’t exposed himself to sufficient stress, he was incredulous. ‘My life is more stressful than ever,’ he insisted. ‘I’m getting less help from my boss, and I’ve got more people to supervise, fewer resources and more competition. If what you’re saying is right, how come I’m not getting stronger?’ Many of our clients initially raise the same question.
“The answer, we tell them, is that the key to expanding capacity is both to push beyond one’s ordinary limits and to regularly seek recover, which is when growth actually occurs [this is just like with weight training, or running, or swimming, and so forth]. There was no area of Roger’s life in which he was doing both. At the physical and spiritual level, he wasn’t spending enough energy to build capacity. Because he was undertraining those muscles, they continued to atrophy.
“In the other two dimensions — mental and emotional — Roger was overtraining, subjecting himself to excessive stress without sufficient intermittent recovery. The result was that he felt overwhelmed. His solution was simply to keep pushing. What he needed was time to detoxify and change channels in order to periodically renew mentally and emotionally. Roger was pushing himself too hard in some dimensions and not hard enough in others. The ultimate consequence was the same: diminished capacity in the face of rising demand.
This is a good post by Matt Blick.
It’s a bit annoying to me that Things doesn’t have a place to put your longer-term goals and any big rocks you define for the week. The result is that your actions (and projects) lack the overall context that really provides your orientation (within an overall gospel-centered and biblical framework — without that, a to-do list becomes law).
So I’m toying with the adaptation pictured below, which lets me do this. You have to use the program a bit differently from intended, but it feels better to me (at least initially).
Note that to make this work, you don’t explicitly tie actions to projects. I put the actions I need to take in the “areas” section, and just manually create another one when needed to keep a project going forward. If a project needs more detailed planning, that goes in project support, not Things (which I’ve found cluttering).
Here’s a screen shot of this layout:
I’ve started using Things a bit (along with OmniFocus — I’ll explain how I use each at some point if this keeps up).
I like the interface of Things a lot and there is a simplicity to it that is really appealing. I find that Things works great for quick and simple tasks. I also find that it works great for repeating tasks. I find it complicated, however, to use it to organize tasks in to projects and keep track of anything that is longer-term and sustained.
So one thought — and I don’t know yet if this will work — is to use Things for repeating tasks and quick hit stuff, and then keep track of longer-term outcomes somewhere else.
For those out there who use Things: How do you use it?