Labor Day weekend is almost over and it's back to work for the last few months of the year…I won't even tell you how many days left until the holidays. Costco has Christmas decorations up and I'm already getting emails from the Dana Point Turkey Trot asking me to reserve my place for Thanksgiving morning.
This is the part of the year when things really start to move fast for all of us. Summer is officially over, many of us have family members who are going back to school (or we're going back to school ourselves), we're starting to think about holiday plans, and yes, we're trying to figure out how we're going to complete all of our professional goals before the end of the year.
Here's the problem: many of us get overwhelmed and we don't even think about coming up for air until January 1st. Plus, there is just more and more stuff coming our way each day that we need to do something with (emails, requests, meetings, projects, etc.) Here are five practices that I use to help control all that stuff:
1) Embrace Inbox Zero
As I write these words, both of my work and personal email inboxes are completely empty. I follow a system called Inbox Zero, made popular by 43folders.com
You can Google Inbox Zero for more info, but the basic premise is to do one of four things when you are reviewing e-mail messages:
- Do it (if less than two minutes)
- Defer it (schedule for another time if longer than two minutes)
- Archive it for future reference (if you'll need it again someday)
- Delete it (if there is no current/future action needed by you)
Using this method, I'm able to keep my inbox clean and almost always empty by the end of the day. As a result, email doesn't stack up untouched for days and weeks.
2) Maintain a Central Notes System
Almost all of us take regular notes during conversations, telecons, and meetings. The problem is that many of these notes end up in all kinds of different places. The key is to have one system that holds all your notes so you can reference them quickly and easily.
For me, I take a blank pad of paper to every meeting and put the other party's name at the top of the page with the date. At the end of the day, I type the key points of my notes into either Highrise or Evernote, depending on the context (Highrise if it's a conversation with a current/future client, Evernote for everything else). If I'm at a computer or mobile device while taking notes, I use Evernote. Both of them sync the notes to all my computers and mobile devices.
I'd like to go completely digital someday, but I'm not yet at the point where I've seen a good enough software solution to take notes on my iPad during a client meeting. Hopefully we'll see a decent solution for this soon.
3) Use One Calendar
Too many people run their lives off multiple calendars in different places and, as a result, miss important events or cannot accurately plan their time. While I realize this isn't always possible in every environment, I find it very useful to utilize the same calendar for work, home, and personal events. I use BusyCal on my Mac so that I can see all my information in one place.
If you are using multiple calendars, consider consolidating to no more than two calendars (if it's not practical to have work and personal calendars combined). If possible, consolidate this down to one calendar so you have a single roadmap to run your day. Stop spending time mentally keeping track of multiple calendars. At work, talk to IT about getting your work calendar talking to your mobile devices. In your personal life, use Google Calendar or MobileMe to link calendars between computers and mobile devices. Use systems when you can overlay calendars if need be to see it all in one place.
4) Schedule a Planning Hour
For years, I've spent 30-45 minutes on Sunday evenings planning out all the important things that need to get done in the coming week. I look at my goals, project plans, and task lists, and plan out the week. I also am sure my weekly plans align with my long-term goals.
I block time during the week for important tasks. For example, if I have a set of important client calls I need to make early in the week, I'll block a 1-2 hour spot for it on Monday or Tuesday and be sure focus on just that work. I also limit how much people can interrupt me during that time. I'll turn my phone and e-mail off for that hour or two so I can focus (they'll leave a message if it's important). If someone interrupts me, I'll say, “I'm in the middle of an important task. Can I get back to you at 4 o'clock?” Of course, I'm sure to follow up when I promise.
The plan always changes by the end of the first day of the week, but having a strong starting point keeps me in control of my scheduling decisions and allows me to make time for important tasks. One tip: always leave at least 20-30% of your day unscheduled for the inevitable unplanned stuff that comes up (perhaps more if a big part of your work is responding to the daily needs of others). Trying to control every second is almost as bad for your stress level as not scheduling at all.
5) Keep Tasks Deadline Oriented
The fine folks over at Getting Things Done have mostly gotten me into the habit of only putting something on a task list for today if it really needs to get done today. I've been the master at breaking this rule in the past. Nothing is more demotivating than starting a day with 50-60 things on a “wish list” when you know there is no possible way to tackle even a small portion of it.
Be realistic and only put the things on the task list that must get done today. Use project lists for other tasks that don't specifically need to happen today. Putting this habit into practice has brought me a lot of peace and a much greater sense of accomplishment at the end of each day. Plus, I don't have to push the postpone button on every task at the end of every day…also very demotivating.
I'm confident these five practices will help you run your day by the clock and your life with a vision.