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Run more effective meetings by pre-writing your “recap” summary

According to the Atlassian, the average employee has 62 meetings per month and reports that half of those meetings are a waste of time. It’s great if you can reduce that total number but for the ones you do have, try to make them more effective meetings. I have several strategies I use to make the best use of my meeting time.

That said, one of the biggest time-sucks wasn’t just the time spent in the meeting itself, but post-meeting trying to put together summary emails that would go out to my team. It seemed like writing those summary emails would take as long (or longer) than the meeting itself! Does this sound familiar?

I knew there had to be a better way.

That’s when I changed up my process and started writing the summary email before the meeting even took place. At first, this seems crazy (or presumptuous at best) but stick with me, it’s only a draft at this point.

This draft becomes a reminder of what the important topics are and is a reference point to gauge progress during the meeting. As the conversation takes place, I amend my notes to reflect the actual discussion and can add more details where appropriate.

Below are the steps I use, which I offer here as a starting point.

Write up the ideal summary email before the meeting

The genesis of this idea is a simplified version of the “begin with the end in mind” concept, which is Habit 2 from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The idea is to start thinking about the actual discussion that will take place, which serves a dual purpose of getting your mind focused on the meeting while giving you a chance to gather your thoughts on each topic.

Doing this is easiest if there’s a clear agenda for the meeting. This becomes a basic bullet point outline. Next, fill in the outcome you want to drive toward (or, if you aren’t exactly sure what you want, jot down the options you expect to discuss).

This doesn’t need to be exhaustive but it should be enough so that if you sent it out as-is you would have a little something to say about each topic.

Now you have your summary email drafted.

During your meeting/call, guide the discussion based on this draft

When the meeting begins, this draft will be an easy reminder/reference point for each of the planned topics. What’s become apparent to me in using this method is just how much “drift” happens during well-intentioned meeting discussions.

It actually becomes easy to see when things have drifted off topic. If something is way out of context with the summary you’ve prepared, consider putting the conversation in the parking lot until the core agenda has been addressed.

Take notes to fill out the additional details and changes

During the meeting, it’s easier to take notes because a decent chunk of the work has already been done. Sure, not everything will go exactly how it was laid out in the draft, but I find it to be a lot easier to make note of where things change rather than have to capture everything from raw.

The notes fall into two main categories:

  1. Changes to the basic summary
  2. Details to provide more specifics

When something is radically different from what I expected, it’s very recognizable, and it’s also much easier to make a logical appeal, rather than an emotional one. This is because I’ve already gathered my thoughts and can articulate what I expected based on my summary draft. This helps drive more effective meetings.

Additional details mostly focus on:

  • Key points/highlights (and who said them)
  • Decisions that were made (and what will be discussed later)
  • Follow-ups/action items (and who is assigned)

Also notice here how the burden of writing/typing during the meeting is reduced. This helps drive focus on participating in the meeting rather than being stuck using that brain power to figure out which notes to take.

Final thoughts

I need to point out the elephant in the room: I don’t intend for this method to be interpreted as a way to railroad a meeting toward the outcomes you’re looking for. The point is to get your thoughts straight so you can focus on getting your point across as well as guide a productive session.

Another note is that this approach isn’t applicable to every type of meeting. It assumes some level of control to know what the meeting is about as well as forming an initial opinion on limited information.

Also, consider the audience and the importance of having some off-topic discussions. These can be really valuable, and remember that, sometimes there are important parts of the conversation that should have been laid out in the agenda (but weren’t).

Do you think that writing this kind of summary could help drive more effective meetings? Let me know in the comments!

Enable the Hidden Microsoft Outlook QueryBuilder

After discussing Search Folders in a recent episode of ProdCast, Joel pinged me after the episode asking me about some more advanced search options. Specifically, he wanted to create a search folder with a little more complex logic behind it (like using AND or OR for several potential criteria).

Microsoft does support this without any extra add-ins, it’s a feature called Outlook QueryBuilder, but it’s not very obvious how to turn it on. In fact, it’s hidden and is enabled by adding a key to the Windows registry. I wasn’t able to find a video on creating this key, so in an attempt to give back I present the following brief how-to.

As a word of caution, editing the registry does carry some risk with it. In case you’re not familiar, the registry is where a lot of critical details are stored that makes Windows (and your installed software) work as you would expect it to. Making edits can have unintended consequences. That said, the update in this video is pretty safe, but always be careful whenever you go into the registry 🙂

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Create an Outlook Search Folder (and only search one folder)

On the most recent episode of the ProdCast: The Personal Productivity Podcast, Joel Lindstrom and I talked about Search Folders as part of a strategy for dealing with the deluge of email.

In case you haven’t already listened to the episode, I was talking about setting up special folders inside of Outlook 2016 (or 2013) that look through your whole mailbox for a match (even if it’s in a sub-folder, or sent items, or wherever). In simple terms: a search folder is a saved search that saves you time by storing several search terms, allowing you to find matching emails in just one-click.

Joel asked me if the Search Folder could focus that search to look inside of just one specific folder (e.g. “only mail in your inbox” and not any other folders). The answer is yes…but after recording the episode, I felt like I made it sound over-complicated to set up a search folder that only searches through a certain set of folders. I whipped up the following video to show just how easy it is!

If you’re not familiar with ProdCast, it is a podcast about personal productivity, getting more done with the time you have, avoiding procrastination, and being more efficient. We separate the hype from productivity tools and talk about ways to use your email and task list to become more productive. If you’re interested you can subscribe on iTunes.

Don’t Let Automation Destroy Your Authenticity

One of the most effective ways to become more productive and manage your time is by automating low-value, repetitive tasks. Every week new apps are released that will connect to your online accounts and do some work for you. I’m a huge fan of this progress, however, I get concerned about these services having an unintended effect of trading some of your authenticity away just to save a little time.

There is a growing popularity of automation tools like Zapier, If This Then That (IFTTT), and Microsoft Flow, and it’s becoming easier and easier for average people to build their own personalized automations.

Even easier are tools like dlvr.it which will monitor sites and automatically post to social networks on your behalf. I’ll admit that I’ve tried dlvr.it for a couple of months and it has saved me time because I don’t need to remember a laundry list of sites that I want to further discuss on Twitter (it does the posting for me). Unfortunately, things got weird for me when people re-tweeted and responded to my tweets about articles I hadn’t actually read yet.

That crossed a line for me. As informal as social media can be, people do react to tweets, posts, and shares in a very personal way. As a result, I recently stopped using this automation and decided to find a middle ground I am comfortable with.

This made me reflect on the ways automation can impact the perception of your authenticity. As I weighed the arguments, I expected that my opinion would change if I considered it from the perspective of an individual (e.g. my personal Twitter account) vs. an organization (e.g. my company’s Twitter account). To my surprise, the answer stays pretty similar for both situations.

Be careful which kinds of human interaction you automate

Every year around the holiday season I get greeting cards from friends and family. I also get them from companies that I do business with. I’m never impressed with the generic holiday greeting cards from my insurance agent. It’s a great concept, but I can see that they were printed in bulk (with a mail-merge), include a laser-printed message and signature, and were sent from another state. How many people receive this kind of card and feel warm-fuzzies?

I like my agent, and I don’t think he’s even directly responsible for the cards (it’s the parent company that sends them out). Sadly, the card that’s being sent out on his behalf actually serves as a reminder that I’m not getting a personal card/call/email to wish me happy holidays.

I get plenty of other impersonal mailings from the insurance company, ones that I don’t mind at all. Who in their right mind would expect their billing statement to have a personal touch? The non-personal, but personalized, holiday greeting card is a perfect example of the wrong kind of interaction to automate.

Set appropriate expectations to maintain your authenticity

Take a moment and think about something as simple as an order acknowledgment email for a purchase you make online. Few people today would expect this to be personally crafted and sent by a live person. In fact, for me, and many others I know, that email should be in my inbox right away. It’s a tangible thing that makes me feel satisfied that the order I just placed is real.

However, 10-15 years ago (or maybe even less than that) most people wanted to know that there was a human being looking after their order. Why is this?

Expectations changed.

They may have changed for something like an email that confirms an order, however, the prevailing expectation I see on social media is that people expect (and believe) that posts are coming from real people hitting the Post button. Make sure your authenticity is not compromised by over-automating this kind of interaction.

Setting these expectations grows increasingly important “bots” become more mainstream. Bots (a.k.a. chatbots) are growing in their ability to handle requests for information (through a request from somebody) and automatically respond with an answer (or with a request for additional details or context).

In my experience I’ve seen bots with very wide differences in how successful they are–but little irks me more than a website offering me a live chat with an agent…but then it turns out that the agent is actually a bot.

Final Thoughts

I’d like to reiterate that I am by no means speaking ill of the services provided by dlvr.it, IFTTT, Microsoft Flow, or others. These are very exciting tools that can improve the productivity of individuals and organizations alike. There’s a line when it comes to communication, though, where automating for productivity could compromise your authenticity–and I highly encourage that you take the time to ask yourself where that balance is for you.

Do you automate communication tools like email or social media? Do you think I’m overreacting? Sound off in the comments below.

Secrets to Getting Stuff Done – Prove Your Competence by Saying No

If you’re like me, when someone starts talking about a new project, you get excited and might want to get involved. This is a great quality, which has served me well both personally and professionally, and something that I never want to lose.

Unfortunately, this tendency can have some unexpected side effects, like overextending yourself. About five and a half years ago, I had put entirely too much on my plate at work and it was really difficult to deal with.

One of the contributing factors was that I worried that if I said no to a project, I felt like the person asking (usually my boss or someone senior to me in the organization) might think I declined because I lacked the skill or ability to do the work. In other words, I was worried they might think I was incompetent.

In hindsight the exact opposite was true.

Getting stuff done (the important stuff) means something else probably won’t happen

How many times have you found yourself saying something like:

  • There aren’t enough hours in the day…
  • I wish I had time to learn that…
  • If only I could find the time to…

Nobody wants to be in that kind of situation because it means that there’s something you really want to be doing, but you can’t. I focus a lot of effort on using my time on the things that are most important. After all, there are only 24 hours in a day (and only 168 hours in a week).

I can hear you saying “OK, sure Matt, only spend time on what’s important. But that’s easier said than done. Especially when my boss might think I’m not carrying my load if I can’t take on this new project or task.”

That’s a fair point, however, test my logic in the following scenarios.

Which situation actually makes you look incompetent?

Let’s consider two different people, Mark and Sara, who are each asked by their boss to help out with a project.

  • Mark says yes to everything. He knows he is capable and wants to prove that to his boss. He was already overloaded with projects, so what’s one more project in the queue. He misses commitments because he has too many. People think he must be competent because he said he’ll do everything, but proves to be incompetent because he’s not delivering
  • Sara often says yes, but also sometimes says no. She is capable but wants to make sure she can focus and follow through. She delivers on commitments because she’s not getting crossed up in too many things. People might think she is incompetent because she said no, but her track record of getting stuff done proves otherwise.

Who do you think looks incompetent, Mark or Sara?

Whether you say yes or no, there’s always a risk that someone might think that you’re incapable or even incompetent. Let them think whatever they want to but prove yourself and your personal brand by meeting the commitments you make. Your track record is an objective scorecard that you can reference back to.

Careful! I’m not suggesting that “no” is a get out of jail free card

Quite the contrary.

Doing work. Doing good work. Taking on projects that are new and challenging, or that will take learning on your part. These are all part of growing your career. Saying no, and especially saying no “the wrong way” can make you seem difficult to work with or unwilling to cooperate. This is potentially dangerous territory to wander into.

I say this because there’s a temptation when you’re learning to say no to misuse this developing skill. It may not even be a conscious thing. It’s an easy trap–in fact, it’s natural. If you’ve ever talked with a two-year-old who learned to use the word no, you know how they tend to go overboard.

What I am saying is that saying no in the right situations will help make sure you’re able to focus on getting stuff done. In the long run, this will lead to people seeing your competence because you do the stuff you say you’re going to do and they also don’t mistakenly assume you’re going to do everything that comes your way.

Final thoughts

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve actually been quite guilty of saying yes to too many things. I rather enjoy the challenge of completing a lot of stuff that I’ve committed to. However, I’ve seen the dark side that can include late nights, exhaustion, and stress that doesn’t need to be there. In those times I realized how much additional risk of seeming incompetent came because I committed to a project that I didn’t have the bandwidth to take on.

I’ve worked hard to develop the skill of managing this particular risk and I highly encourage you to do the same. One of the first places I recommend starting is in situations like the ones above, where you’re saying yes for the wrong reasons.

Do you agree that saying no can prove your competence? Let me know in the comments below.