Archive for the ‘Benefits of Organizing’ Category

How Much Time Should Planning Take?

If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable. — Seneca

Once in a while a client avoids planning on the ground that it takes too much time. They’d much rather dive right in and spend that time getting some of their work done, instead of reviewing goals, choosing priorities, and making lists.

"Out of Business" (c) All rights reserved by Lynn Park.

"Out of Business" (c) All rights reserved by Lynn Park.

How much time should planning take? Less time than anything else you do in your work. Like tooth-brushing, planning takes very little time and pays big dividends for the small increments of time and effort invested.

Good planning requires just two percent of your time, divided between two types of plans.

First, one percent of each day will be used to plan the following day. Before finishing work for the day, evaluate the following day. Choose three tasks that contribute to your larger goals, and work on those tasks first thing the next day. That one percent of time (about five minutes of an eight-hour day) spent planning tomorrow’s work will pay off beautifully in real progress on the things that matter most.

Then, devote another one percent to longer-range planning. Arrange a half-day planning retreat every quarter, so that you can weigh your progress and adjust your focus. This will prevent unproductive drifting.

Finally, use another half day (for a total of two and a half days out of a 240-day work year) to make your annual plan.

Remember that frantic activity does not equal productivity; in fact, productivity thrives on calm and considered action. Invest just two percent of your time – just five minutes a day and two and a half days each year – and watch the productivity returns pour in.

Why Tasks Hang On – Three Productivity Traps to Avoid

Gum tree seed pods stick; your tasks don't have to. (photo by M. Lukens)

Take a look at your to-do list. Are there things that have been lurking there for weeks, maybe months? How do you feel when you think of those tenacious tasks? Tired? Discouraged?

You can get rid of those “Velcro jobs” faster if you know how they got to be clinging to your days in the first place.

There are three common reasons that tasks hang on.

1. As my father said, “You can always think of more things to do in a day than you can get done.” Expecting yourself to accomplish everything that enters your mind just isn’t realistic.

To avoid this trap, observe how long various tasks actually take. Try scheduling tasks in your calendar to give yourself a more realistic benchmark. If I have 10 hours of work to do, but only six hours available, something is going to go undone, at least for today. Recognize that on days when your calendar is full of appointments, you probably won’t be able to accomplish a lot of other work. Be realistic in your expectations.

And if a task is non-essential, give it an expiration date. This prevents jobs from dragging on indefinitely.

As the philosopher William James observed, “there is nothing more fatiguing than the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.”

I find that because I dream up new ideas nearly every day, I often have assigned more jobs to myself than I could ever possibly finish. If I haven’t written that non-essential proposal or made that call within the deadline, I’ve learned to delete it. If it’s really important to me, it will come back again. For now, I’ll actually be more productive if I just let it go.

2. In his book The Procrastinator’s Digest, a Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, Timothy Pychyl, PhD defines procrastination as “a needless voluntary delay.” Procrastination is a terrible productivity trap that keeps tasks hanging on, usually the least pleasant ones.

One strategy Dr. Pychyl recommends for moving past procrastination is to understand the costs of our procrastination and the benefits of acting without delay. Each day, do the least palatable job first. Then, the rest of the day looks brighter, and you are unburdened by the costs of procrastination on those unpleasant jobs.

3. If your goals and objectives aren’t clear, there’s no good way to know which tasks are most important. When everything looks like it has equal weight, important things are bound to drag on.

As I teach in my Plan to Thrive workshop, the solution is to make a clear and compelling plan that really suits you and your business.  This will help you sort out the really essential jobs from the “nice-to-have” ones.

Did you know that people routinely over-estimate what they can accomplish in one year, and also wildly under-estimate what they can do in three to five years? Think about it: if you’re like most people, what you’re doing today is something you could hardly have dreamed of just a few years ago. A clear and compelling plan can help you to be both realistic and ambitious about the tasks you really want to accomplish.

What do you want to brush off your task list? Declare it by leaving a comment here.

Update: In-box zero

Back in June I pledged to achieve in-box zero by the first day of autumn, so I owe you, dear readers, an update.

How did I do? In a word: busted.

I managed to keep up with most everything that came in during the past three months, but the backlog is a mere 10 percent smaller than it was. My 500+ message in-box has been whittled to just under 450.

Two points need to be made as I consider my failure to live up to my plan. First (and I think it was Merlin Mann who first said this), before you get good, you have to stop sucking. I did succeed in not sucking. I kept up with incoming mail. That alone is a habit worth latching onto and nurturing for all its worth.

Second, to be fair I had some dire family issues that intervened. Entrepreneurs need to be good bosses to themselves, remembering that we must sometimes cut ourselves some slack. I had some understandable reasons for missing my goal.

So, what have I learned so far?

  • In-box zero is an illusive goal. It’s really hard to get there and stay there.
  • Even in tough times, I did better than stay even. I made progress. Good for me.
  • I really want to reach this goal. I will keep working at it.

The modern work world throws more stuff at us than we can comfortably handle. Those of us who experiment with new ideas in organization and distill others’ productivity prescriptions down for your easy digestion, we’ll continue to seek new ways for all of us to keep up with what really matters and let go of what isn’t important.

Have you tried to achieve an empty email in-box? Tell me about it. And if you’ve found a brilliant way to make it happen, definitely tell me about it. There are thousands of us who are dying to know!

In-Box Zero

Remember merit badges, those embroidered circles used to mark achievement for Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts? Now there is a company that makes merits badges for grown-ups, and there’s one I desperately want to earn: In-Box Zero.

My goal of an empty email in-box is more elusive than live tech support. I crossed into the new year on 1/1/10 with an empty in-box and a zero credit card balance. The credit cards are still paid off, but the in-box currently houses over 500 messages.

I know what’s there. It’s not that I haven’t taken in the content of those 500 messages; I have. Some are offers I wanted to think about, like a class I wanted to attend but wasn’t sure I’d have time for. (I didn’t.) Some are newsletters I haven’t read (and probably never will.) Some are threads of complicated conversations involving several people, conversations in which I am not an active participant but was copied on the messages because someone thought I might be able to contribute or might need to know.

I receive between 80 and 100 emails each day, which based on my non-scientific observations of business people, is about average. I deal promptly with the vast majority. I respond and delete, or I file for later action, or I file for reference. Still, that 3 or 4 percent that I don’t move out of the inbox immediately begins to accumulate, until by mid-year I’m looking at a 500-message surplus. A quick calculation indicated that if I could deal with just three more messages each day, I could have kept the message count to nil. But three more was too many.

The goal of in-box zero is a great goal, but I know that I’m not the only one who struggles with it. How do I know? Two ways: I’ve worked with clients who’ve had tens of thousands of inbox messages they needed to clean out. And whenever someone reaches inbox zero, they’re apt to crow about it. Just this week author and business guru Tim Sanders posted a screen shot of his empty inbox. That’s a measure of how difficult it is to achieve.

Still, I remember how great it felt to have my computer desktop as well-ordered as my physical desktop. I’d like to get back to that happy state. And the causes of my email clutter are the very same things that cause my clients’ physical clutter: deferred decisions, being unclear about what the next action should be, and keeping things I don’t need.

So here’s my mid-year resolution: I’m going to return to inbox zero by the first day of autumn. That means dealing with an extra 5 or 6 messages a day for the next 3 months.

  • I will unsubscribe from newsletters I don’t read; I’ve already canceled three.
  • I’ll make time each week to review those tempting offers and make a firm decision about whether or not I’ll accept them, then either delete the email or sign up and delete.
  • I’ll make time to review any long conversations in which I’m just copied, and either participate or bow out.

And I’ll do the work required to keep the email from accumulating again. Check back to see my progress toward my goal. And if you’d like to join in with a goal of earning your own In-Box Zero badge, state your intention by leaving a comment here.

Want to get organized for business? This class can help.

Tired of an overflowing in-box? Would you like to be better organized? Want to manage your time, paper, and energy, and have a lot more fun doing it? There’s a class that focuses on the skills and tools you need to banish disorganization in your office.

I’ll be teaching “Organize Your Business Life” at College of San Mateo on Saturday, May 15.

Learn to handle incoming items effectively, set priorities, follow through, get the most from your time, positively affect your stress level and the stress level of those around you — and more.

This class makes use of presentations, participant exercises, and class participation to help you learn new and useful skills. I’d love to share the skills, the information, and the fun with you! (And community college classes are a great bargain – don’t miss out!)

If you’re not in the San Francisco Bay Area, please contact me directly by leaving a comment here. I’ll be happy to point you toward resources available to you in your area.

What are your biggest office organizing challenges? Time? Paper? Setting priorities? E-mail? Let me know!

Time Myth: “busy people are more productive”

Ready for a tough assignment? The next time you feel overwhelmed because you have too much to do, slow down.

This is not easy. It is a natural tendency to rush through our work when we feel short of time, but in the end it doesn’t help. That’s because busy-ness is not the same thing as productivity.

Our goal is not to do the most things, but to do the most important things.

The next time you feel really rushed, stop and take stock of all you have to do. Give yourself a full minute to take it in. Think about what really is the most important thing for you to move forward. Then do that one thing.

At the end of the day, you’ll find that the discipline of moving mindfully through your tasks, rather than racing frantically through them, allows you to get more of the important things done while feeling less stressed and more in control.

Are professional organizers perfectly organized?

This recent news from my organizing colleague Margaret Pearson Pinkham, who specializes in working with chronically disorganized clients in Sonoma County, CA:

I went to sign up for the Spring season of NSGCD teleclasses and guess what? I had waited too long and the class on Procrastination was FULL!

Occasionally someone will ask me whether I, a certified professional organizer, am perfectly organized. Does a doctor get the flu? Has a horse trainer ever been bitten? Can good mechanics  suffer an automotive breakdown?

Here’s the truth: we all are sometimes overwhelmed with all the stuff that comes at us. I know what it means to be late, to feel disorganized, to procrastinate, and to lose things — all from personal experience.

In fact, I would beware of any professional who has not faced and conquered their own hurdles. Who is more likely to help me, the personal trainer who has healed from their own tweaky knee or bad back, or the one who has found fitness a breeze from day one?

I am always on the lookout for new and better ways to address the challenges of modern life. First, I form the habits that make organization possible, including making a clear and compelling plan, recognizing what I need to capture and how to let go of the rest, and the discipline of actually doing the work. Then I look for whatever tools can make it easier for me to do the job.

And because there is no one solution that works best for everyone, I also look for whatever tools may help YOU do the job, too.

What organizing, time management, and productivity issues give you a hard time? What hurdles would you most like to get over?

Join the National Day of Unplugging March 19 & 20

One complaint that I hear popping up more and more frequently, a habit crying out for change, is the negative intrusion of technology into our lives.

I’m not talking about the miracle of GPS, which guides me directly to my destination in a strange city after dark. Or online chats that allow me to hold regular meetings with colleagues in other states and other countries. Or my iPhone, which allows me to search for critical information while I’m away from my office. But for every benefit that technology brings, there is also a possibility for that same technology to crowd out things that matter more — nurturing friendships, time to think, reconnecting with nature, enjoying an uninterrupted meal. Some complain that they can’t converse with a friend without that person giving half their attention to tweeting on their smart phone. Others lament that they can never really relax, since email interrupts their evenings and weekends now.

"Dear technology, give it a rest." (Photo courtesy of http://www.sabbathmanifesto.org)

Enter the National Day of Unplugging, from sundown tonight until sundown tomorrow. An invention of the Reboot crew as part of its Sabbath Manifesto, National Day of Unplugging is a step toward creating a less anxious and more meaningful life in the midst of daily stress.

The thoughtful people at Sabbath Manifesto emphasize that their effort is not about following someone else’s rules for how to use your time. Rather, it is an attempt to recover ancient traditions that create helpful boundaries, protecting meaningful things in our lives.

If technology has crept into larger and longer parts of your life, if you’re connected so much you no longer notice the distraction, if technology has become your drug of choice, or if you’d just like to shake up your technology habits a bit, join the National Day of Unplugging.

Beginning tonight, make other plans. Devote the whole day to face-to-face relationships. Write a letter. Take a walk. Daydream. See you on Sunday!

Need a Net Nanny? Rescue Time Provides the Loving Discipline.

How do you waste time at your computer? Are you an obsessive email-checker? Do you while away hours playing solitaire or backgammon? Are your achievements in Farmville and Mafia Wars huge compared to your achievements in the real world? Are you a connoisseur of funny pet videos on YouTube?

image courtesy of http://www.zynga.com

With temptation never more than one little mouse click away, our best productive plans can easily be derailed. I can always divert myself from work that is difficult or tedious by clicking over to something amusing (I’m a solitaire and backgammon girl, myself.) Even when I’m not trying to avoid work, it’s easy to be drawn from one site by a link, that leads me to another interesting link, that leads to…. Day’s over and nothing’s accomplished.

Did you ever wish for something that would help to keep you on track, a sort of nanny to remind you of what you should be doing right now? Enter Rescue Time. Rescue Time bills itself as time management, productivity, and project tracking software. Running in the background on your computer, it’s basic function is to track what you’re spending time on – business, email, social networking, meetings and phone calls, and so on.

Time Rescue provides pre-assigned categories of activities, which are surprisingly easy to customize, allowing you to change the productivity ranking (“Being on twitter is required for my job – I’m the social networking guru, honest!”) and fine tune the reporting.

One feature of Rescue Time that can be especially helpful is the Focus Time tool. If I need to write without interruption for 30 minutes, I tell Rescue Time to put me on Focus Time, which means it will block any category that I have rated above a certain level of distraction. If I try to leave my work and open a browser window on facebook.com, which I have rated as “very distracting”, the browser window will roll over to Rescue Time, with a reminder of why the site is blocked for me and, just in case I really need to look at facebook right now, a message detailing how I can unblock it.

If you are motivated by upholding your personal best, you’ll probably enjoy checking your Rescue Time stats and making sure you haven’t dropped below your average, or the score of the average Rescue Time user.

Of course, Rescue Time can’t enforce productive habits against your will. What it can do is to helpfully remind you of your intentions if you should falter for a moment and provide feedback about how well you’re sticking to your goals. And when it comes to forming good time management habits, that’s a lot of help.

The basic Rescue Time application is free.

Five steps for ending “tolerations”

Get ready to stamp out persistent pests!

I call them “tolerations” – those little irritants we hardly notice. Maybe it’s something small, like a sticking wheel on a desk chair. Maybe it’s something you try to ignore because you feel you can’t change it, like a noisy neighbor. It could be your life-long habit, such as piling your papers rather than filing them, making your desk feel like a barricade.

Whatever our tolerations are, they act like potholes in our path. They slow us down and make the journey much less pleasant than it needs to be.

Uncovering and addressing our tolerations can free up huge amounts of time and energy.

Here’s an exercise that I use to uncover and eliminate those energy-sapping tolerations:

  • Make a list of anything that you may be tolerating, putting up with, overlooking – anything that bothers you or drags you down at work. These could be incomplete tasks, other people’s behavior, equipment and tools, frustrations, problems, or even your own behavior.
  • Choose one to work on. (This is where a coach can be especially beneficial, helping you determine whether this is the time for small steps or bigger challenges, and what is the best focus for you right now.)
  • Consider this toleration. How long have you had it? What do you know of its origin? How big is its impact now? What would be your payoff if you were to eliminate this toleration?
  • What do you want to do with this toleration? You may know immediately how to get rid of it. If not, brainstorm several steps you could take to address your chosen toleration.
  • Take action now.

Take a deep breath and enjoy the increased room in your office, your schedule, or your mind!

What have you been tolerating? Are you ready to get rid of it now? Leave a comment here.

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