What’s Your Baseline?

“One of the greatest Polish experts on molecular mechanisms of memory, Prof. Lech Kaczmarek, surprised me once with his original solution: I do not keep notes and I do not have an appointment calendar. Whatever I forget, it could not have been important enough. Indeed, natural forgetting mechanisms may act as a good way to thin out the to-do list; however, this solution probably isn’t suitable for everyone. Its main shortcoming: problems with stress management. Many of you would probably keep worrying than an important appointment, deadline or promise would not be met (with untold consequences).” Source: http://www.supermemo.com/articles/tasklists.htm

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Do you believe in planning? Do you have a calendar or a task list? Do you “go digital” or keep it simple with pen and paper?  Perhaps the most important question — have you been using any such “system” continuously for more than a year (i.e. does your personal approach actually work)? Plans are nothing more than a prognosis of what can happen. Plans are not straight paths we follow, but they can serve as a baseline to which we compare what’s happening in our lives. Here’s what Scott Berkun wrote on planning in projects:

“Later on, when scheduling became something I was responsible for, I realized the unspoken truth about schedules. They are not gifts from the future. There is no magic formula or science for creating perfect schedules. Despite my youthful perceptions, scheduling is not an isolated task: it always represents and encompasses many different aspects of what the project is now and will be later. Schedules are simply a kind of prediction. No matter how precisely they are drafted or how convincing they appear, they are just a summation of lots of little estimations, each one unavoidably prone to different kinds of unforeseeable oversights and problems.” Source: Making Things Happen by Scott Berkun

Schedules are only predictions, true. But the process of personal planning helps us answer important questions. Questions like the ones below:

  • Am I in line with my values? Do I keep the end in mind?
  • Do I maintain a balance between all important aspects of my life?
  • Am I [only] doing things right or am I doing the right things?

This is why I love to plan.

* * *

The two approaches that seem to be the most popular on the net:

  1. Getting Things Done (David Allen)
  2. FranklinCovey (Stephen R. Covey)

I respect the first one, I use the latter. But what’s more important, with each year I become more aware that planning (the approach) is a very individual thing, i.e. can only be customized to suit one’s needs and should never be blindly re-used.

Message to a Brave Firefighter

We have a natural tendency to do FIFO (First In, First  Out) when managing our tasks. Whatever reaches our attention, gets more of this attention than in should. At first.

David Allen popularized the two-minute rule. While I agree with the concept (i.e. if you can tackle a task within two minutes, you ought to do it without deferring), I think there’s potential risk from what lies in our nature. We aren’t particularly good “hubs“.
When one receives an issue, it very often is “hot” – you read between the lines of an e-mail, your friend says something is important (his “important” or your “important”?), you get the wrong impression of the potential workload… When you hop in, it often is to late to step back.

Note for myself: forget the two-minute rule. Put everything down – in your time-management software or on a sheet of paper / calendar. Let it cool down a bit. Writing the task down costs time, but you might get an interest in the longer run.

Above all, respect your right to think.

Attention @work

“We have focused on managing our time. Our opportunity is to focus on how we manage our attention.” —Linda Stone

Source: http://continuouspartialattention.jot.com/

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After having reached a fair level of personal organization (I’m still open to new ideas), my productivity focus is now set on attention. Attention itself, prolonged attention, undivided attention, preventing unjustified multitasking are currently on my top 10 list of topics. At some moment, your efficiency (not effectiveness, mind you *wink*) depends on how well you manage to concentrate, avoid distractions and return to your previous work should they occur.

Some proposals:

  • The most obvious – maintain an uncluttered environment (i.e. desk)
  • Avoid using Instant Messaging (if not blocked by the corp firewall, I usually ban myself from using it)
  • Don’t leave your e-mail software online (i.e. download e-mail at regular intervals instead of “Instant Messaging mode”)
  • Minimize efficiency barriers – have all the necessary tools at hand (e.g. a good search engine, decent / standardized folder structure and file naming convention etc.)
  • Always have your current action/task displayed (I use a floating Stickies’ window with the task name in the upper part of my screen)
  • Have the deliverable in mind instead of the action itself – it helps (perhaps adding info on deliverable in parenthesis would suit you?)
  • If you need to write a longer text, use… Darkroom
  • Make appointments with yourself (use a calendar to create “virtual” appointments – this works especially well during hectic periods)
  • If you work in an open space, keep your earphones (music) at hand
  • Track your time spent (it fosters better time usage)

Here’s an interesting note from someone I’d call “an inspiring radical” 🙂

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“I apologize for refusing invitations to conferences. I travel rarely and only to vacation destinations. Otherwise I am entirely stationary. I attended my last conference here in Poznan in April 1999, and the last business meeting in Poznan in Summer 1999. I had my last business teleconference in Fall 1999. Today, I use only e-mail communication (see: E-mail vs. creativity and time-management), where I can apply incremental mail processing (see also: incremental reading). Freedom from meetings and deadlines makes it easier to use tasklists, proportional schedule, and adjust the timing of mental effort to the body clock.

Please do not see my refusal to attend important business meetings even in my home town of Poznan as unkind or a sign of not attaching sufficient importance to an issue in question.

For exactly same reasons as above, I do not have a mobile phone; not even for private purposes. Nor do I use Internet telephony. If I do not provide contact information, it is not of ill will. It is solely the question of time management. If I happen not to answer mail personally for a longer time, it comes from the fact that I frequently take “creative vacations” that may last a few months. In those periods, I intensely focus on one vital problem and work cut off from major distractions. I believe this attitude will be increasingly prevalent in creative professions. It is not dictated by lack of concern for others. It is dictated by efficiency! I apologize to anyone who feels offended.”

Source: http://www.supermemo.com/english/company/wozniak.htm

Another related article:

Time to Pay

“You don’t really pay for things with Money. You pay for them with time.”
– Charles Spezzano, What to do Between Birth and Death

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I like the idea that everything in life boils down to time. Evolution occurs in time. Life & death (the “cleaning cycle”), growth… – time is an inseparable companion of ours. In a way, time makes things happen. If there was no time, “happening” would be a worthless concept, don’t you think?

In practice, most of the things we do are measured based on time spent – be it directly (e.g. wages) or indirectly (we still know how much time it took us to complete a task). In fact, our lives can be converted into time. How much have we got left? What value can we bring between birth and death? Scaring?

1. How did you buy this new XYZ?
I paid for it.

2. How did you pay for it?
I paid with money.

3. Where did you get money from?
I earned it.

4. How did you earn it?
By working.

5. How did you work?
I used my time to create value (based on the skills & competences I have – I took the time to learn and incorporate them).

We hear that time is a resource. Is it? Can we influence it? Can we make reserves as in the case of, say, oil or wood? Not really. Time flows. End of story. Time doesn’t give a darn whether we want to accumulate it, store it or make it stop altogether.

Conceptual Work vs. Firefighting

For the purpose of this entry, allow me to recognize two general types of intellectual work:

  • conceptual work
  • support (aka “firefighting”)

Conceptual work is about creating content. This can be an offer, a piece of code, a presentation, a plan, editing, credit decisions… Actually, most of the activities you find in the office, perhaps excluding managing people and chatting around the cooler.
Support is responding to [more or less] urgent inquiries of all sorts, e.g. helpdesks, system administration. Representatives of the latter prepare FAQs, fallback scenarios and act when problems arise.

At times, it’s not easy to separate conceptual work from support. We do receive inquiries that require conceptual work after all, right? Right. The point is, that those two types of activities are sometimes combined in one position. Examples? A programmer who is part of the support crew. A project manager who supports the local knowledge management site. A business analyst, who acts as an application manager and picks up the phone when “something doesn’t work”. A communication consultant whose main responsibility is to edit texts, but is required to act when an author has technical problems.

My experience shows that this situation is quite common. Why? Cost cutting might be one reason. Employing a new person for the support part of the job isn’t the first choice. Another – ignorance? A manager thinks that the author or the main owner is best suited to support others. After all, he/she has the know-how.

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The problem is that we lose money this way. In the long run. We might lose the employee in the long run too. Those two activities don’t work well together. Conceptual work requires longer attention spans, takes time to prepare before the actual execution. When the process is interrupted, we lose efficiency (the “saw effect”). A more appropriate pattern for conceptual work would be as follows:

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For the employee the result in combining conceptual work and “firefighting” is usually… frustration. He or she finds it more and more difficult to provide quality work. Instead of “doing things” the employee is required to pick up the phone and respond to dozens of e-mails. For the knowledge worker, the value added seems vague here – all that can be quantified is a bunch of tickets in the support system. If anything.

Time for a coffee break 🙂

Things not to Do

We often keep lists of things to do – things to do now, things to do later or some day in the future. Context-based action lists (a la GTD), daily lists and master lists (a la Stephen Covey), project lists, goal lists, product lists or… any lists (a la … fill in the blanks).

An interesting idea, albeit not very popular, is to to keep a list of things not to do.

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