I write for Time Management for iPad Magazine, an authority on Time Management. This is my article on influence, originally posted on the Time Management for iPad page – April 2013.
A tool, whether it be a screwdriver or a piece of software, is only useful if it dovetails ergonomically and psychologically with the person who uses it. In my twenty-year career as a consultant and expert on productivity and time management, I have seen a great many tools being used by people desperately trying to find the solution to the pressing problems of time and tasks. Some of these tools were expensive day-planning kits sold by big name speakers and authors. Others were sophisticated software packages. Some were humble calendar systems sold by stationery stores, and of course many now take the form of downloadable apps. The problem is, if it doesn’t fit the way your mind and body works, it will not work as a time management tool. So here are my suggestions for finding and successfully using the right one:
- Use only one system. As long as there is only one person in the universe who is you, there should only be one calendar. This applies to everything you do, both work-wise and personal, appointments and ToDo’s. As soon as these things become distributed across sticky notes, wall calendars, smartphone calendars and desktop calendars, the potential for double-booking and other types of time mismanagement increase substantially. Make sure all appointments are visible on the face of your calendar. Any ToDos that you plan todo today, or any emails that require more than 30 seconds to take care of (an additional task request, for example), should be promoted to appointments and booked physically onto your calendar as an event so that they accurately reflect the amount of time required to complete them. (ToDo lists by themselves are terrible time management tools, because what you gain in not forgetting tasks, you lose in not calculating their duration.) Bottom line: One you, one calendar.
- The Recurring Activity. This is a tool, in the sense that it is a feature of a larger tool – a software calendar. If you have work that needs to be done daily, or every week, such as responding to emails, working on a long-term project, or self-directed focused work, book it as a recurring activity now, even if you don’t know what the actual work will be. You know you will need the time, so book it now, and use it as needed when the day comes. If it takes you two hours per day to respond to all of your emails, for example, and if these emails are important enough to warrant your time, then you need to book a two-hour recurring activity to handle them, even if the two hours are not contiguous. If you do not do this, you leave your schedule vulnerable to attack by others, who may, for example, book you into meetings against your will. Your schedule may also become vulnerable to self-destructive behaviours, simply because an open calendar under-represents the actual work that needs to be done. When there are no defined boundaries, tasks tend to take longer than they should. Recurring activities reserve and protect time for the tasks that you know will happen.
- Keep it on the Cloud. If you are forced to use your employers’s existing system, such as Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes, ensure you have remote and singular access to the calendar so that your smartphone or portable computer become additional portals to your one-and-only calendar, without being the sole container of your life’s priorities. Synchronization is a poor second to staying up-to-date in real-time. Forgetting your computer in a cab or coffee shop becomes a nightmare when appointments, contacts and emails disappear with it. Again, singularization rules, and centralization saves. If, however, you have the luxury of choice in terms of which calendar system to use, I always recommend a singular (one calendar) system, accessible via the internet from wherever you are. Google Calendar and Zoho are free, fast, stable and thorough, and others such as 30Boxes or Cozi also have very robust features.
- A week’s testing. Yes, this is a tool in itself. Changing over to a new time management system such as an online calendar, a smartphone or a more specific organizational tool such as Evernote or Apple’s iCalendar/iCloud suite, takes some getting used to. The ergonomics of an application, from colour schemes to layouts, views and sheer ease-of-use across multiple devices may take some time to discover, and may not always be what they are cracked up to be. You are investing in a product that will be central to how you get things done, how you prioritize, and how you interact with others. It is truly worth a trial period to kick the tires just to ensure the system matches the way you think and act. This means using two calendars at the same time, which is not a contradiction of point no. 1 above. It means using both systems (the old and the new) fully, as if each were the only system you owned. Yes, this means literally double the work, in the short-term, but it also ensures a full try-out of the new system, and the the ability to revert to the old one – without a loss of data – should the new one not prove compatible. It’s an investment in your productivity, not a sunk cost.
- People Skills. People are the best time management tools around. First, you can often delegate tasks to them. If you have assistants, or team members, they may be able to take a certain amount of your work off your plate, if you are willing. If you work alone, there are thousands of great and very inexpensive freelancers fighting for a chance to work for you on even the smallest tasks through portals such as as Elance and ODesk. Second, you can negotiate with people. If a client or manager is waiting on work from you, or worse if two people are waiting, and you cannot prioritize, then go talk to them. Human beings are very good at accepting alternatives once their fears have been allayed. You can win back time and jettison stress, simply by conversing with your stakeholders and rearranging expectations. Third, people are very good for brainstorming. Others call this synergy. If you are stuck on a problem, the most time-efficient thing you can do is to bounce that problem off one or more people and see what ideas come up. Just make sure to write everything down. Fourth and finally, people who have been there and done that already are called mentors. They can share their stories with you, which translates into sound, real-world advice, which may shave years off your learning curve. In all four of these examples, the time spent connecting with people and building relationships with them, will yield dividends in terms of time best used for your projects and goals.