Tight stairway to the sky

Block Out Distractions

As the New Year’s celebration approaches, it is useful to reflect on how we can become more efficient and effective.  Continuing breaking down nine of the techniques I have found useful over the past year we explore a selection ranging from saying “no” to time boxing. The goal is to not only get more done but to get the right things done.  

  1.      Filtering Work – The most powerful word for becoming more effective is “no.” Do the work that is important to achieving your goals and say no to work or items that do not progress those goals. No is not a word anyone is taught to say easily, and in some cases not it is not an acceptable word to use in a corporate environment.  When “no” isn’t comfortable or acceptable, consider committing to completing the task or work at a future date (and then schedule getting it done). Saying yes and then doing the work poorly (my mother, who was fairly blunt, called doing work poorly something else – ask me if you really want to know). For example, I am currently the President of the International Function Point Users Group. I carve out approximately an hour a day and then schedule that time on my calendar to address tasks, beginning with the most critical task the office requires. Requests that come in outside of that time queue until the next available scheduled time slot.

Tools I use:

  • Trello – I use Kanban to larger pieces of work that move through different stages toward completion.
  • Evernote – When ideas or work comes to me outside of the regularly scheduled work period or while I am working on something else I typically email notes to Evernote so I don’t forget them.  I am trying to minimize my use of pencil and paper to reduce the amount of time needed to transpose tasks from my horrid handwriting into Trello or a spot on the calendar.
  • Outlook – I schedule work on my Outlook calendar and then use the calendar to manage my day (to the extent possible).  PS – I work in an Office shop, so other calendar apps are not in the cards.
  1.      Delegation – One of the best tools to buy more time in a day is not to do everything yourself.  Entrust work (whether you are pushing down, sideways or up is a different discussion) to someone else to complete.  Delegation of work requires the delegator to define the task, specify who the work is delegated, assess the ability of person/team of the delegate, explain the reason for delegation, a statement of the results required, and agree on the deadline. Delegation is a powerful tool for providing bandwidth, building trust and for building capabilities in an individual or team.

Tools I use:

  • Trello – Used for tracking larger multistep efforts
  • Evernote – Used for smaller to-do list items.  I am contemplating using a calendar to transition away from an active to-do list.  
  1.      Automation – On a day-to-day basis we perform many tasks that require effort but less brain power; the less time spent on these tasks the better.  Automating these tasks are a way to reduce personal involvement in tasks or steps that do not require active involvement, thinking or processing.  A reduction in effort increases efficiency (efficiency equates to less time required to create an output). For example, I track the use of several terms that are important to my business, blog, and podcast. I used to spend 30 to 40 minutes searching those terms multiple time a week.  I now use Google Alerts to perform the searches and have the results emailed to me.  Begin by visualizing your flow of work (do this even if you are not going to automate anything), and then look for tools that can automate the flow. One cautionary note, automation typically requires time and effort to learn tools, potentially the cost of tools and in some cases the cost of consultants to code the automation. Balance the whole cost with the benefit of automation.

Tools I use (or am trying):

  • Google Alerts – Monitor the web for specific terms.
  • Process Street – A simple workflow software for businesses. I interviewed the CEO of Process Street on SPaMCAST 390.  I am experimenting with this tools/service.
  • Zappier – An automation tool that connects web apps (this is next on my workflow exploration hit list).
  1.      Time Boxing – A time box is a fixed period of time allocated for given activity.  In Scrum a sprint is a time box. Other Agile frameworks often use iterations. The concept of time boxing has was popularized in the 1990’s by Champ and Hammer, in Reengineering the Corporation, and then picked up and used in the Agile movement. Time boxes are useful for ensuring focus and creating checkpoints for generating feedback.  Time box everything.  I use Pomodoro (I wrote about it here: blog and podcast) as time box tool not only for the work I do personally but as a tool to structure training classes (almost anyone can stay focused for 25 minutes).  Humans are good at working to deadlines, and time boxes create structured deadlines to work toward, show progress when they are met and the endorphins of success when a deadline is met.

Tools I use:

  • Pomodoro – Pomodoro is a technique that is useful for attacking the productivity killers: procrastination and multitasking. The technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s that combines strategies of fixed blocks of time, cadence and focus which limit work-in-progress to get work done.
  • Timer – Timer app on my cell phone.

There will always be a tradeoff between efficiency (switching costs) and effectiveness (staying fresh and making visible continuous progress) or an opportunity cost for techniques like automation. A workable solution is a balancing act and will always be a work in progress.

Entries in the Annual Tune-Up Theme for 2016 (Part of our overall Getting Things Done Series)!