Productivity by Number, Part 2

This is the conclusion of a two-part series on productivity. You can catch up on Part 1 here.

Step 4: Prioritization

Yes, everything I have ever read about productivity and life satisfaction emphasizes priorities. But it’s hard to appreciate their importance and power until you see how completely you lack them.

Two weeks on RescueTime forever changed the way I think about this. For instance, I at first gave email a score of “Very Productive” because part of my job is evaluating marketing opportunities – most of which come through by email. And after all, I reasoned, in the knowledge-worker economy, aren’t people’s jobs based more and more around communication and making decisions? Even if we don’t like it, don’t we have to accept that email has become a huge part of our daily duties?

However, after looking at a week’s worth of data, I realized that much of the email I get really is NOT important compared to other things I could be doing. 87% of people report that they don’t read all the email they receive; well, up until I had this epiphany, I was one of the 13% who did. Not being afraid to delete email that looks uninteresting has freed up a lot of time.

Then Steps 1 & 2 finally sank in. Knowing what needs to be done is good. Knowing what needs to be done next is better. There were two areas where this could be immediately applied:

1. Email Folders

I had folders that divided newsletters into my practice area, “Marketing,” and the company’s industry, “Legal.” But with over 50 different publications flying at me (yes, for the purpose of this blog, I counted), there was no way to keep track of which were the most useful.

Instead, I created four new folders:

  • Committed to Read (for the 2-3 most useful publications that I never miss, and occasionally, things that colleagues send me to read)
  • Would Like to Read (things that are always interesting, but less targeted to my job description or industry)
  • If I Have Time (I never do, but if I ever did, these well-known newsletters would be worth glancing through)
  • Uncategorized

At first, everything got dumped into Uncategorized, and I let them build up for several weeks. Then I grouped by publication and read through each until I could determine which of the other categories it should go into – or if I should simply unsubscribe. It’s still a work in progress, but I spend much less time trying to keep up and get more value out of the time I do spend. I also don’t worry about missing something if I delete emails that have built up in the bottom two categories.

2. Email Flags & Categories

I had set up a system of flags for emails that divided things into “Emails people have sent me that I need to do something about,” “Emails I’ve sent people that I need to follow up on,” and “Emails about projects I need to keep an eye on from time to time.” The obvious problem? I had no idea which were approaching a deadline or which had lagged for long enough.

Those got reworked into “Emails to deal with today,” “Emails to deal with or follow up on this week,” and “Emails with no particular deadline”.

It takes a little time to keep it current, especially if a lot of emails are flying back and forth about a particular subject, but on the whole I find it to be minimal effort for a lot of benefit. The number of follow-up emails I receive has dropped to nearly zero, and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s having to be followed up with.

Step 5: Managing Expectations and Delivering on Time

The first time someone demanded I create and deliver something NOW, and I was able to spend 10 seconds glancing through my flags and tasks and tell them, no, you can’t have it now, but you can have it on Tuesday, because these higher-priority things are due on Monday, had them agree to this schedule, and was then able to deliver it slightly ahead of the promised time… well, that was a great feeling.

Like all tools, my system only works if I use it. Years of procrastination make for a hard habit to break, and I still sometimes find myself falling down the rabbit-hole of a not-immediately-important project. And I admit that depending on what comes up in a day I don’t always get to all the emails I’ve flagged to respond to that day. But following the system has made me feel much calmer about my to-do list and much more confident that the important things are getting done, and that in itself frees up attention and time.

Productivity is a different journey for each person, but I hope this has given others who are still searching some ideas they can try. Also, if there’s something that works wonderfully for you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Productivity by Number, part 1

That it is possible to look busy without accomplishing much, and that correct prioritization is necessary for true productivity, are ideas which are pretty universally accepted – and, I suspect, nearly as universally confusing.

For years I struggled with the Steven Covey Four-Quadrant system.

If you have 10 urgent things, and some of them need to happen soon so various projects can move forward, but some of them were handed down by your boss, which ones are  1: urgent and important, and which ones are just 3: urgent? Or are they all urgent and important, and in that case, which do you do first? And at what point do the neglected 2: important projects become urgent, even though they have no time deadline attached, simply because they never rank highly enough to get done otherwise?

I spent years trying to use that system and just feeling bewildered.

It probably works very well for some people – evidently it worked for Covey, or he wouldn’t have written a book about it – but what I’ve realized is that no system will work for everyone. It’s only recently that I’ve gotten noticeably closer to finding mine.

Step 1: Getting Things Done

I wrote a post about this one last year. It’s a wonderfully simple and intuitive system (when you want to get organized, the first thing you want to do is figure out everything you have to do, right?), but I found it too overwhelming to keep a running to-do list that started at 50 items and multiplied faster than I could cross them off.

I’ve pretty much abandoned this system – except that I do add every “I’d like to do that someday” idea to my low-priority task list at work.  Because I’m not adding it to the list with any expectation of really getting to it, at least not in the plan-able future, it doesn’t add the sense of pressure that the master list did.

Step 2: The Agile System

About six months ago I discovered the Agile System.

A few of the bits I pulled out and placed in a recurring task:

Monday Vision         On Mondays, simply identify three outcomes – compelling results – you’d like for the week. If you’ve established what your Hot Spots are, use them for input.

Daily Outcomes         At the start of each day, identify three compelling outcomes you want to accomplish. Use your three outcomes for the week from your Monday Vision as input. You may have a laundry list of tasks, but for your Daily Outcomes, identify the three most important things you can accomplish for that day. You use these three outcomes to help you prioritize all of your tasks and focus on results. If you complete your three key outcomes for the day, you can always bite off more. Whenever you ask yourself what’s the next best thing for you to do, your three outcomes should guide your answer.

Focus on outcomes, not activities or tasks. Consider what you can reasonably accomplish and what would be the most valuable. “If this were Friday, what are the three most important results I want to show?” and, “What would be the most pain if it weren’t done by Friday?”

I still use this one – a little bit. The quotes I found particularly compelling live in a recurring task so that it pops up early each morning, and (most days) I take a minute to write down my top priorities for the day.

Again, every system works differently for each person. It took some experimenting to make this one helpful; strangely, I found it overwhelming when the day’s tasks were listed vertically with the week’s goals at the top, but listing them horizontally is fine. And for a while I was more likely to accomplish my priorities if I started by listing only two; perhaps because I’m still getting used to prioritization, three can be distracting.

Step 3: RescueTime

A chance mention on a blog I read put me on the trail of this free/cheap online app. Basically, it plants a cookie on your computer, tracks how much time you spend on whichever window is on top, assigns a score to every program and website you use, and spits out a number that represents your overall Productivity.

You can also create Projects and the system will record time spent on them. This could be useful if, for instance, you wanted to show your boss that a low-level administrative task is taking an inordinate amount of your time and that you need support.

It’s not perfect; I’m not always convinced it calculates properly, and I wish it would be more granular. For instance, you can only assign one productivity score to each program or website as a whole. Well, obviously, some emails are quite productive and can be the main means of completing a project, while others are not as important, or can even be tools of procrastination – but there is no way of differentiating this in the RescueTime system, so two days that were spent on opposite ends of the email productivity spectrum will score exactly the same.

Still, it’s a great tool for auditing and competing with yourself – especially if you’re honest about scoring activities. I’ve also created a Project called “Break” so I know exactly how much work time I’m not spending on work and can improve that.

Continue to part 2.

Prove it’s Easy

As a teenager I once spent a day at a challenge camp where, long story short, I chickened out and failed to reach the top of a 10-15 foot rock-climbing wall.

It was a failure I occasionally thought of over the next 10 years, always with a sense of disappointment and a wish for a re-do. Consequently, when my dear new husband suggested we visit a rock-climbing gym with a 30’ wall, he found me much more persuadable than I usually am about exercise. Continue reading “Prove it’s Easy”

Summer School

When this blog went on extended hiatus this summer, it was not a rejection of the Eschewing Easy project. On the contrary (as many of my readers will know), I was committing to it for the rest of my life: I got married. I rather suspect that living happily ever after will provide the seed of many new Eschewing Easy posts.

The biggest lesson learned this summer? Planning a wedding is not easy or fun.

It is also great practice in leadership: from my perspective (although I’m sure others will disagree!), the bride can be regarded as the “CEO” of The Wedding. An involved groom is like a 40% shareholder – you’d better listen to what he wants. When the parents are paying, the Mother of the Bride is like the Board of Directors – the only person who can tell the bride what she absolutely cannot do. And the goal of it all is to fulfill the CEO’s vision while showing the “customers” – the guests – a good time.

I admit I thought of all this rather late in the process and therefore didn’t manage and lead the chaos as well as I might have. Turns out that no matter how determined one may be not to be a Bridezilla, planning a wedding does tend to focus one’s attention on Self and what “I” want. That’s a very hard position to lead from; you have to take a larger view if you’re going to manage (and keep happy) different factions.

The other thing I realized, at least more practically than I had previously, was that it’s hard to find the balance between being warm and emotive without being emotional, and between being decisive without being or seeming inconsiderate of others’ ideas.

Craving simplicity in a complex process, or just a brief respite from constant discussion, it’s easy to over-do the decisiveness, to pull rank, to put your foot down. It doesn’t work. Without consensus, or at least without others knowing you’ve given open-minded consideration to their ideas, resentment builds, everybody digs in their heels, and discussion accelerates – at a greatly increased level of tension.

Still, I’d say the end product was worth it all.

first kiss

Mother of the Bride and family friends under the pergola
Mother of the Bride and family friends under the pergola
friends enjoying the party
You know your wedding has a relaxed atmosphere when friends wander away and seat themselves on the grass.

It’s good to be back.