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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.

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Why 168 is my most important number for time management

When I say time management and mention the number 168, does that mean anything to you? For most people I talk to, the answer is “no”. I find this to be fascinating. My follow-up question is then “have you ever added up how many hours are in a week?” At that point, most people have figured out what 168 is about, but they want to know a little more.
The core practice that I’ve adopted is to do a weekly review session, part of which includes looking forward to the next week’s activity. There are a few reasons I focus on the one-week time frame:
  • Planning 168 hours is more “in your control” than 24 hours
  • Looking forward one week is more tangible than a month or a year
  • I find that much of my time management success comes from reflection
I’ll let you in on a few of the details of why these are so important.

Planning 168 hours is more “in your control” than 24 hours

When I look at what I’m going to be doing tomorrow a lot of those decisions about time management seem like they’re “already made”. I know when I’ll get up, eat, get ready, and later go to bed. Most of my plans with other people are already in place (or the time is at least mentally blocked off) and there’s a mounting list of “important” things that I know I’ll need to do.

time management by planning the week

Looking at the upcoming week…

By putting a plan together for the next 168 hours, instead of the next 24, I’m able to re-acquaint myself with what’s been scheduled while there’s still time to influence that schedule.

  • Is there a meeting that is not actually important? Suggest canceling or deferring the meeting.
  • Do I have a meeting scheduled that I’m not quite ready for? Block off some time to prep.
  • Are any of my plans with friends or family in flux? Use this chance to reach out and firm up the situation.
  • Am I including time for the other projects that are important to me? Make sure I block off that time.

Looking forward one week is more tangible than a month or a year

You might think to yourself that I’m suggesting that we all just look further out when doing planning, but I contend that there’s a specific time management sweet spot by looking out one week. Most weeks (for me) there are a number of assumed things (sleep, eating, etc.), known activities (meetings, social events), and important tasks (which may or may not be scheduled).

By limiting yourself to only looking a week out, it’s easier to get a feeling for how hectic the week is. It’s also easier to see where you might be able to re-prioritize things so you can focus on the things that are most important to you, without having to compromise on your commitments to others.

Let me be clear that looking out further than one week is also very important. This is actually a skill that can be practiced and developed over time. In fact, many of the skills for looking out 168 hours are foundational to looking out months, years, or even decades (as crazy as that may sound).

I advocate looking at the upcoming week, each week, to build the habit and practice that skill of prioritizing, then periodically looking further out.

Much of my time management success comes from reflection

In the words of a good friend of mine, “planners gotta plan”. As you may have gathered above, I fit into this category–but I’m also a believer that review and reflection are as important as putting together a plan.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how perfect a plan seems, I never follow a weekly plan 100%. That’s expected and okay! I’d also like to clarify that when I’m scheduling time in the week, there’s still flexibility that I allow myself day-to-day. Instead of getting upset about these changes I find it best to roll with the punches throughout the week then take time later to review where things got off the rails.
This exercise isn’t about beating myself up, it’s more about awareness. That’s an awareness that I then carry forward to planning the next week.
 

Final thoughts

I’ve barely scratched the surface of how powerful the 168 hours mentality has been for me. I don’t claim to be perfect when it comes to time management (I’m certainly guilty of making mistakes) but I do find that thinking about things in weekly chunks has worked really well for me.
Do you use a similar approach to how you manage your time? Let me know in the comments!

How the real secrets of inbox zero put hours back in my week

When someone catches a glimpse of my email inbox, they usually make a comment about how few emails are there. Co-workers especially, since they have an appreciation for how much email we get in an average day–and they know that I do in fact respond to emails. Just a little over five years ago, the concept of inbox zero, having literally no email in your inbox, seemed like complete fantasy.

matt's actual inbox with inbox zero

Here’s a screenshot of one of my inboxes. As of this writing my primary work and personal inboxes each have one item in them.

In my work inbox alone I was getting 200-300 emails every work day–with about half of them ending with some sort of to-do item or request from me. The sound of an email arriving on my iPhone 3GS (back before you could set your own sound) actually made me physically cringe. It seemed like all I could do was fight through it to make sure that the “important” emails didn’t slip through the cracks. This was a battle that I was not winning.

To put some numbers to this–an average of 30 seconds per email (including responses, if needed), that would be up to 2.5 solid hours per day just dealing with email. That doesn’t include any of the research or real work that needed to be done.

It was with that realization that I started a journey to see what was in my control to try solving the problem. That’s when I found an article about Inbox Zero.

I didn’t actually save the that first article I read, but I very badly wanted that better future where I wasn’t drowning in email. I tried really hard to follow the advice to set up filters, automate similar replies, and identify the appropriate action for emails. There were still a lot of important emails coming in that demanded my attention.

I had become more efficient with processing email–but the speed and volume of email wouldn’t let me get to inbox zero. I didn’t have a chance as long as the circumstances stayed out of balance.

The first secret I learned: Slow the flow of email

Before you say, “hey Matt that’s great and all, but I can’t change how fast email is coming in” just give me a chance to explain what I mean.
By analyzing my email (through a categorization exercise that initially added to my email time) I found that there were a few categories that stuck out to me:

  • Emails asking about the status of previous emails
  • Rapid-fire back-and-forth emails (almost like exchanging text messages)

Depending on the day, up to 1/3 of my email fell into one of these two categories. That’s up to 100 emails a day! What seemed especially notable was that both of these are areas where I might be able to cut down the amount of these emails. I did! I won’t sugar-coat it–this isn’t an easy process, but it was a total game changer that made inbox zero within reach.

The method I used was to work with people to reset expectations with people that were sending me email requests. Setting expectations is so important in life, even with things like how you communicate through email. Doing this virtually eliminated this type of email–saving me an average of nearly an hour every single day.

The second secret I learned: Living in an inbox zero mindset

By slowing the flow of email and using techniques to efficiently process email, I have been able to get my inbox nice and tidy. But here’s the thing–it’s not always at zero emails. It’s usually between one and 20 emails, but sometimes it rises above that level.

An important part of inbox zero for me is recognizing that I don’t need to fret about whether I literally have zero things in my inbox. There will always be another email that comes in, sometime, whether it’s in 3 seconds or 3 hours, it’s coming and it’s completely outside of my control.

Focusing my energy on the things I can control is a core part of how I manage my time. This isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that I regularly remind myself of, and an important practice to keep in mind with respect to inbox zero.

I very much can control how deliberate I am when processing my email. I don’t let myself go into my inbox constantly looking for new email. In fact, I turn notifications off for a lot of the day. Even 2-3 seconds spent looking at a new email alert has an additional cost of 5-6 more seconds as my mind darts to another couple of related thoughts before I refocus on my active task. 8 seconds per email for 150 emails is nearly 20 minutes daily. Instead, I let it pile up for an hour or two, then I process email and take-no-prisoners in dealing with the new pile-up in my inbox.

Final thoughts (for now)

I was in an extreme situation with how much email I was getting, as well as the supposed importance of those emails. There were certainly other factors that added to the stress, but my email dilemma weighed heavily on my daily life both at work and outside of work. Embracing the inbox zero mindset was a total gamechanger once I learned to reduce the flow of email, set expectations, and focus how I deal with email.

Are you drowning in email? Have you tried something like this before (and what worked for you)? Is something getting in your way? Share your experience in the comments.