The Best Plan is the One You Use

September 15, 2014

Daily planning post-it note


Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is quoted as having said, “Fail to plan; plan to fail”. I agree. In fact, creating a daily plan is my number one suggestion for better time management and personal productivity.

Why am I writing about such an obvious and well-known concept? It is because I am often surprised to discover that not everyone uses it. I think that people are reluctant to take the time to plan, when they could be working. However, I believe that planning your work is part of your work.

To me, a daily plan answers the question, “What do I want to accomplish today?” A daily plan is NOT a schedule or a general to-do list. A daily plan is a statement of the top three things that you intend to get done that day. Why only three? New priorities and tasks will come up throughout the day. That’s why I recommend picking three things.

Each day, before doing anything else, take a moment alone to decide what you want to accomplish. Write down up to three items. These are the goals that you will do your best to reach on THIS day.

Your daily plan process should be fast and easy. You don’t need to make it complicated by ranking and sorting ALL of your items. You don’t need to add priority A, B and C against each item. Just pick the top three.

I also suggest choosing those tasks that will allow you to have the biggest impact. It’s an intuitive process – don’t take too long over it!

This daily planning technique has many benefits. Here are my favourite three:

  • It’s flexible. As you’ve only chosen three things, you’ll also be able to attend to other tasks as they crop up.
  • You can use it to lead by example with your team.  Let them know what three things you’re up to and ask for theirs. This helps your team realize that planning is part of their work too.
  • You’ll feel calm and in control.

When coaching with regard to personal and team productivity, I ask my clients how they plan for their day.

Since they usually have no planning technique, we discuss and agree that a daily plan might help. After going away and trying it for a while, my clients report that they are delighted by the results such an easy action can produce.

What are you using to plan your day? And are you doing it every day?

Powering Down in Sleeptember

iPad powering off

September often feels like the beginning of the work year. Kids return to school after the summer holidays. Here in Canada, adults also get back down to business after a vacation (or just a slower period while others were away!). The weather is cooling, signalling that playtime is over and work time has arrived. It’s a busy period and you need to be firing on all cylinders to keep up.

Are you getting the rest you need to operate at peak capacity?

Many of us are “on the electronic go” until we lie down in bed. Just minutes before our heads hit our pillows, we’ve been surfing Facebook, answering emails, and/or doing a host of other e-tasks on our computers, iPads or smart phones.

Now, although our devices may be powered down, our brains are still powered up. Our bodies and minds need some time to switch off before we can relax into a restful state that slips into sleep.

Also, light from electronic communication devices provides a signal to our brains that it’s daytime. If you’re sitting in bed with your laptop, it will take longer to fall asleep. Several phases of sleep are essential for brain functioning. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is associated with learning, while theta brain waves are linked with creativity. In fact, sleeping only four or five hours a night for a week has been shown to induce impairment similar to a blood alcohol level of 0.1 per cent.

In the U.K., The Sleep Council has put together an article full of useful information about this issue. Created by a group of British bed manufacturers, The Sleep Council’s article, entitled “Sleeptember”, gives five practical tips for getting a good night’s sleep. (Due to the usefulness of the other four, I think we can forgive them that one of their tips is to get a new bed!) Here is a recap of what they suggest:

  1. Environment: Your sleeping area should be “cool, quiet and dark”.
  1. Routine: Get into a sleep habit. As much as possible, bedtimes and waking times should be consistent. Staying up late to finish a work assignment may have a short-term payoff, but will only have a negative impact on your performance in the days to come.
  1. Electronic-free: No gadgets, even T.V. Especially, nothing that glows. Experts recommend a “blackout period” from brightly lit electronics — including the TV — for at least an hour before bed.
  1. Relax: Before turning in, take time to wind down. Engage in a quiet activity like reading a book, listening to music, meditating or writing in a journal. If incomplete tasks are still cluttering your mind, write a to-do list. This will help you put them aside so you won’t ruminate over them at night. If you start to stress about your workload in bed, remind yourself that you’ve already made a plan for tomorrow to deal with these unresolved tasks.

“But wait!” I hear you say. “I’ve just got so much on my mind that by the time I remember to relax, it’s already time to go to sleep.”

You are not alone. In fact, you are SO not alone that a New York hotel has begun offering “work-down” calls. Just as a “wake-up” call tells you when you need to get out of bed, a “work down” call tells you when you need to get ready for bed.

Manhattan’s Benjamin Hotel started the work-down call program to help its business travellers. These travellers kept complaining that they were not getting enough sleep. It was hard for them to resist checking their emails or text messages “one last time”. The hotel encourages people to book work-down calls for one hour before bedtime.

You can make your own version of a work-down call by setting your phone alarm for one hour prior to bedtime to remind you that the e-day has come to a close.

Consider also, the impact that you are having on your team if you email them late at night. Companies are starting to instruct their employees to ignore “after hours” emails. This includes weekends. An article in The Washington Post said surveys show that about 1 in 4 companies have such policies in place.

Volkswagen has taken this one step further. The company and workforce have agreed not to even send emails between shifts. An article in The Toronto Star reported that these “emails stop flowing a half-hour after end of a shift, and resume 30 minutes before a shift starts.”

This month, I’m taking my own advice. I’m switching off all my devices an hour before bed. Apart from my Kindle, that is! For me, reading fiction in bed is a relaxing, sleep-promoting habit. As the Kindle has e-ink, it’s not bright like my phone, iPad or laptop.

Good night, sleep tight!

“Verb-alyzing” Your Goals

July 17, 2014

One of my pet peeves is how many meetings, especially business meetings, are run.  The participants spend their time, energy, and creativity discussing items such as proposals or problems.  Many opinions and suggestions are given.  However, the summation does not include specific sets of actions to be carried out.  As a result, things are left “up in the air”, and no progress is made.

In an earlier post, I wrote about procrastination.  One of the suggestions in that post was writing an action plan.  In his book, “Getting Things Done” (GTD), author David Allen develops this idea in detail.  Allen begins by explaining that the parts of our brains connected with “planning” are smarter than those connected with “doing”.  In other words, “doing mode” wants straightforward, no-frills tasks.  Allen suggests that we can use this brain characteristic to our advantage in order to accomplish our goals. He proposes a methodology composed of “next actions”.

Basically, “next actions” are a series of steps, each beginning with a verb.  Allen teaches that the best “next actions” are like components, or building blocks.  Each is small, simple, and important.  Putting these components together create an item.  In our case, achievement of a goal.

Let’s look at an example.  A while ago, I enrolled in a course to help build my business.  I knew that there would be homework, and I organized time for it.  However, I kept procrastinating because I knew that each homework assignment had several steps.  I just couldn’t find the energy to handle all those parts.  I recalled the GTD strategy and applied it.

The first thing I did was to write down the name of my task – “Do Homework”.  Then, I began to list the sequence of “next actions” needed in order to get that homework done.  My first “next action” was “Download the homework onto the desktop”.  Yet, when I thought about it, that “next action” was not specific enough.  I crossed it out and wrote, “Log in to course. Find homework assignment for this week. Download it onto the desktop.”

When using this strategy, it may be helpful to think about ourselves as a type of mechanical being, a robot.  Obviously, we are not.  However, our “doing brains” (which we spoke about earlier) are most comfortable with actions that are rote, requiring little or no thought.  When the “doing brain” has to start thinking, analyzing, considering, it often begins complaining.  We want to lull it into specific actions, letting our “planning brains” mastermind the overall process.

Chances are you’ve got a task which is hanging around undone.  So, you have the perfect opportunity to give GTD a try.  I know that when I apply this methodology, I get things done.  I am sure you will, too.

Prescription for Procrastination

July 10, 2014

I have never met anyone who is completely free from procrastinating.  Even though I am extremely organized with an almost foolproof filing system (I even have a label-maker), I still find myself putting off certain tasks.  Not being a lazy person, it was difficult for me to understand why.

Then I came across Dr. Neil Fiore’s book, “The Now Habit”.  Before giving advice, Dr. Fiore very helpfully explains some of the reasons why people procrastinate.  They are:

  • the terror of being overwhelmed.
  • the fear of failure.
  • the fear of not finishing.

From personal experience, I would add two further reasons: the feeling of shyness and the avoidance of potential unpleasantness.

Here is my suggestion for a Plan of Action.

Step 1: Analyze the reason.

“I don’t feel like it” or “I don’t have time right now” may be reasons which are true for that moment but they are not the core reasons.  Begin by looking at which of the five core reasons above suit the situation.  If none do, take an honest look inside.  You will most likely find a deeper, more emotional reason for why you are putting off doing this task.

Step 2: Arm yourself.

Overcoming procrastination often feels like a battle.  So, here are some useful “weapons”.  Choose the tool(s) you feel will most likely overcome your core reason(s).

Put a new spin on it – We often try to motivate ourselves by using self-talk such as “I need to do this”.  What about, “I choose to do this”?  Instead of being passively subject to outside influences, we are now actively making a decision in our best interest.

Bait and switch – This unscrupulous business tactic is when customers are lured by the promise of a cheap item and then pressured to buy an expensive one.  Lure yourself with the assurance that you are not going to do the task BUT if you were going to, this is how you would go about it.  Think about the steps you would need to carry out.  Doesn’t it already look more do-able?

Let’s Pretend – This tool is similar to the one above.  The difference is that you actually imagine yourself doing the job.  In your mind’s eye, you see yourself moving from one step to another and completing your mission.  Often, when we imagine ourselves doing something, we are more able to actually do it.

Make a list – Again, another variation on the theme.  In this case, you write down the steps on a post-it-note and place your list wherever it is most often seen.  Now you’ve got a concrete plan for success – whenever you choose to carry it out.

On your mark, get set, go! – Turn your task into a personal challenge.  How long will it take you?

Take a quick dip – Taking “a dip in the pool” has the feeling of a quick “in and out”.  You can do the same with this assignment.  Set your timer for 5, 10, or 15 minutes.  When we know we don’t have to “stand something” for a long time, we can usually find the inner resources to do so.

Step 3: Do battle.

Using the weapon(s) of your choice, confront the troublesome situation.  In most cases, if you have analyzed well and chosen the right tools for you, the situation will reshape itself more positively.

With the aid of the above Action Plan, the number of times I find myself procrastinating has decreased dramatically.   Which ideas from this post will you try?

Tomatoes: Fresh Produce Or Refreshingly Productive?

July 3, 2014

Just as the humble “pomodoro” (Italian for “tomato”) gives zest to Italian cooking, so, too, it can enhance productivity.  In this case, however, instead of fresh produce, we are speaking about tomato-shaped kitchen timers and the periods of time they measure.

According to Wikipedia, the “Pomodoro Technique” was created by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s.  Cirillo’s idea was to have short periods of uninterrupted work or study followed by five minute breaks.  In order to know when the time was up (without the distraction of having to continually check a timepiece), he used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer.  Hence, the name.  Cirillo called each period of concentration a “pomodoro”, plural “pomodori”.  A person can get an idea of their productivity by keeping track of how many pomodori they complete within a given time period.

Basically, the Pomodoro Technique is composed of three, simple but extremely powerful steps.

Step 1: Choose a task.

Step 2: Eliminate as many distractions as you can.  For example, turn off notifications on your computer and your phone, close your door if possible (you may want to hang up a clock showing when you will next be available), and take care of any personal needs that can’t wait (such as having a drink or a bathroom break).

Step 3: Set your timer.  I usually set mine for 25 minutes.  Work until the timer rings.

I think the Pomodoro Technique is a great productivity tool.  In fact, it’s one of my favourites.  Here’s why:

  • It puts me in control of my workload priorities rather than just reacting to the ones which continually try to get my attention (such as emails). By consciously making the choice of which task I do when, I am able to accomplish more.
  •  I can use this technique as a tracking tool.  Keeping a spreadsheet of my pomodori means I have easy access to the dates and number of times I worked on each task.  This helps me to realize when a task is getting out of hand.  For example, we had to create a budget for a new ad campaign.  Time for this task was estimated at 5 pomodori.  Arriving at pomodoro #6 was a signal that the task was taking too long and needed to be wrapped up.
  • We tend to put off larger tasks because they look too daunting.  The Pomodoro Technique gives us a way to reshape such tasks into a series of manageable steps.  Focusing on just the step at hand makes the task feel “friendlier”.

The Pomodoro Technique website, says that this time management tool enables people to “work with time, not against it; eliminate burnout; manage distractions; and create a better life/work balance”.

Try it today.  Please let me know how you get on by posting a comment!

  • Sign Up For Insights