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Getting and Staying Organized
08:24PM January 15, 2011
Over the last several years of corporate life I’ve worked in multiple groups where tracking time and managing tasks were critical in order to succeed. Someone asked me what my principles for time management were so I have outlined them below.
Alan's Key Concepts of a Organized Life:
1. Maintain one to-do list. Only one. If you must have more than one have a personal and work one, but no more.
2. Copy the to-do list manually every day to a new sheet of paper, prioritizing what needs to be accomplished today or is high priority. I carried a Franklin Covey planner for years and used it every single work day and once before each weekend I would line up my to-do items for that weekend. The idea behind this is to make sure that every single task receives some attention every day so that you can prioritize it correctly. If you do not copy the list manually your brain eventually glosses over tasks resulting in missed deadlines. This may seem minor but is, in my opinion, the most important thing to do other than creating the list in the first place.
3. Do not use a electronic to-do list for at least a year. Electronic to-do lists do not force you to manually copy the tasks each day. Use a sheet of paper or a calendar/planner book. When in a high stress period, switch back to paper even after you have gone electronic, that will assure you are paying the right attention to your tasks.
4. Form the habit. Schedule 15 minutes in your calendar every morning to get organized. Copy the list from one sheet to a new one, re-prioritize and identify what you need to focus on today. Just like any other habit, plan on sticking to it for 60+ days before it becomes second nature. Also, schedule a block of email time each day or allocate the first open 30 minutes of free time to email and catch-up. Do not let email distract you once you are in "task" mode.
5. If it is not on the list, it doesn't exist. Do not try to remember obligations. Let the to-do list be your memory of deliverables. If you obligate to something immediately write it down and re-focus on the task you were working. Your brain will eventually trust the list and your calendar, resulting in less stress and "gotcha" realization moments of things you have forgotten or need to do.
6. 5 Minute rule - if it will take less than five minutes do it now. Do not delay, you will spend more time tracking it than getting the task done.
7. Set priorities, manage to the due date of tasks. I have a short-hand tracking system I use - I use a "~" to mark any task that is in progress or in someone else's hands right now and write their name next to it. I also use upward facing arrows beside tasks to identify the ones that need attention today. I also put a cut line on my to-do list, anything below the line is very low priority and is either 1. Over a week from needing action (in many cases I just put a reminder in my calendar at this point and pull it from my to-do list) or 2. Is a nice-to-have and self-driven rather than a obligation to someone else.
8. Always notify someone if you will be late. Always. It builds trust in others that you know that their tasks are important. Everyone sometimes gets overwhelmed when they miss deadlines, if they know you hold their tasks in high regard when you forget to notify them they will give you the benefit of the doubt.
9. Do not multitask while working on a major item. Focus on one task at a time, let the list be your guide. This ties back to #5 - track tasks on the to-do list, not in your brain. This allows you to focus.
10. When busy schedule "work time" in your calendar as to assure that your time is not monopolized by meetings.
11. If something is reoccurring put it in your calendar. Do not try to remember your obligations, use your tools to track your obligations so that you can focus on the deliverables.
12. Do not use your email inbox as a task tracker. You only have one list, if there is something important in your inbox that will take more than five minutes to complete add it to your list.
13. One tip that may not work for everyone but works well for me is: Keep your inbox clear of cruft. That keeps your inbox from becoming a messy distraction. If I have big projects I create folders and sort the email into those folders. I try to keep my inbox at less than 30 messages by liberally using folders and Outlook/Mac Mail search function.
1. A calendar (outlook or iCal is fine for this - it does not need to be paper)
2. Paper and a pen for your to-do list. I used to use a planner but now I tend to use notepads when I need to switch back to manual task tracking.
The process each day:
1. Get organized. First thing each morning, copy the old list to the new list, re-prioritizing and identifying "must do today" items as you copy. Also look at your calendar so that you have a mental image as to what your day looks like, block out time as necessary to focus on "must do today" tasks. I find 15 minutes is a good amount of time for this.
2. Crisis Time. Spend a fixed amount of time dealing with email, voicemail and crisis situations. For me, during the days when I am overwhelmed with tasks it is 30 minutes. Add any items that you need to accomplish to your task list (unless they will take less than five minutes, then do them now).
3. Re-Sync your brain with the list. Look over your task list once more to make sure Crisis Time didn't get you off track.
4. Work off the list. Continue through your day using the task list as a guide to your activities.
That's it. Rinse, repeat for a few months and you should find that your life becomes quite a bit more easy to manage.