Eat that frog! Time management and taming the savage Inbox.

Living an email-driven life? Do your priorities switch by the minute? Find yourself having problems saying no? This blog might be helpful to you if you’re having problems focusing with an avalanche of things coming at you from all directions.

So I’m working from home now, and it’s been a wild ride so far. One of the first things I did was take that 2 hours I was spending a day commuting – and cut it over to more valuable activities. I’ve been walking about 4 miles a day and spending a LOT more time with my girls. It’s been, frankly, terrific. It’s also a terrific opportunity to loaf and become directionless if I let it. No one is around kicking me in the rear end, making me set priorities, and chew through to-do’s. So, how will I manage my time so I will be a responsible and effective employee WITHOUT working in a bullpen?

I decided early on not to try to work harder – but work smarter with ‘sharpening the saw’. So, I checked out some books on time management. One is called “The First 90 Days”, another “You’re In Charge – Now What?”, and then I looked at some material on the internet – and provided by Microsoft on their engineering site. I’ll get to those other two books later, but here’s what I’ve found.

  • Don’t check email first thing in the morning. This is failure to plan, and you’ll become intercept-driven. Instead eat that frog – and don’t check your email until you get at least one important task done.
  • Eat that frog. Plan out at the end of the day your 2-3 most important (not urgent) actions that you want to take. Write it on your calendar and get it done. (Very Agile!)
  • The importance of routines. At the end of the day, ask yourself – what did I do today? What will I focus on tomorrow? What could be improved?
  • Track your tasks. Use sticky notes. Use Kanban (either online or sticky notes with waiting / in progress / done columns). Use Outlook reminders, TFS, or a list in SharePoint. But for Pete’s sake, use SOMETHING.

More can be found below; I particularly found the “focus in the age of distraction” pieces interesting. But, here are the changes I’m going to try over the next week:

  1. Morning diary. This will help me keep track of where I am, and where I want to be.
  2. Pomodoro. 50 minutes working, 20 minutes break. I downloaded FocusTime, but there’s other tools available that will set your outlook/IM display to Busy – Do Not Disturb and give you scheduled blocks of productive time to focus – and then take a break to refocus.
  3. 8-10 am is disconnection time. I’ll schedule it in Outlook. I’ll also set 3 times a day to check email.

In more detail…

Overwhelmed by an Avalanche of Tasks? Frogs Versus Alligators

“If you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, you can go through the rest of the day knowing the worst is behind you. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” 

– Mark Twain

 

Rather than a simple to do list, try placing your tasks in one of the four following quadrants.

 
 


 

Think of the unappetizing frogs as the important tasks, and snapping alligators the urgent tasks of our working lives. You will find some tasks are both urgent and important. Certainly, take care of the upper-left quadrant first. But the upper right important tasks, require your devoted attention, too, or long-range projects will never get off the ground. You can address less important tasks later. And, you may find your urgent tasks may become less urgent.

  

Three main things to remember:

  • Plan your day and determine your most important task, whether urgent or long-range.
  • Schedule time for yourself to eat that frog.
  • Completely avoid the alligator pit. It’s not important.

Can’t focus? How To Focus In The Age of Distraction

We live in constant tension between the urgent and the important. The problem is that the important task rarely must be done today or even this week.  … But the urgent tasks call for instant action—endless demands pressure every hour and day. … The momentary appeal of these tasks seems irresistible and important, and they devour our energy. But in the light of time’s perspective their deceptive prominence fades; with a sense of loss we recall the important task pushed aside.  We realize we’ve become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent.

-Charles Hummel

Most of us know that multi-tasking works for computers, but not humans. Not really. So, avoid context switching loss with some of these tips:

  • Avoid context switching—moving from one task or tool to another takes you out of the flow of work
  • Shut off tools like Outlook, Communicator, and Bugger
  • Block off your calendar to work on big tasks
  • Close your door
  • Work off hours
  • Avoid unnecessary meetings (when you are listed as optional)
  • Schedule meetings close together, so that your focus time is less broken up
  • Use a tool like FocusTime, Pomodoro, etc to help you disable toast alerts and set a timer to focus on what you need to. 50 minutes work, 20 minutes break is all you need. (I used to put a orange cone on top of my desk to help me concentrate, but that didn’t work too great.)

 
 

Still Can’t Prioritize? …Use OneNote to Track Your Tasks (and Look Great For The Boss!)

It’s a great idea to have a format like above in OneNote. (I’ve used both EverNote and Google Keep – OneNote is, so far, by far my tool of choice.) Create a list (Ctrl-1) with three sections – DONE, TO DO, and QUESTIONS. Right before you have your 1×1 with your manager, forward this on to him/her and use it for talking points. (P.S. it’s great come review-time as well!) It synchs with your phone, so you’ll always have it handy. Take notes during the meeting with your manager on that page. After the meeting, copy the page to a new page, change the date in the title, remove the Done items, and continue working on your updated Working On task list.

Slammed With Unreasonable Requests? Saying No With Chutzpah

Peace begins with saying No – you can’t accommodate every request. You can and should say no as part of your prioritization.  If a person comes and asks you to do something, show them the list of things you are presently working on.  Ask them to prioritize their task relative to the other task you are working on.

Tips:

  • Say no, but explain why.  This is the bottom left quadrant of the Covey Quadrant system. 
  • Ask them to talk with your manager/lead.  Your manager/lead is responsible for your productivity, so if your manager/lead agrees it is important enough to work on, then you can add it to your list.
  • Don’t say No right away.  Get the person to submit their request via email, and then discuss it with your manager for their take on the request.  If you don’t feel comfortable asking your manager, ask a trusted co-worker.  Sometimes the person won’t want to take the time to type up their request and will either go to someone else or do it themselves. 
  • Suggest they contact another person who is better qualified for their request, or might have time available for the task.

 

If you do say No to a request, note it down and let your manager know about it during your next one-on-one.  Explain why you said no, and ask them if they agree with your decision.  Spin this as you are trying to learn when and how to say no, and are looking for their guidance. 

For more on this, check out “The Power of a Positive No“.

Living an Inbox-Driven Life? Aim for a Zero Inbox Triage Tree

The picture below says it all.

 

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