time management

I’ve written before about how I track my hours on pretty much everything every day (originally in a spreadsheet, later just in a journal) as a means of spotting inefficiencies and opportunities to systemize and/or outsource, but this week I took it a step further.  Or backwards.  Not sure.  Anyway, I tried to log my hours for the week in advance.

Basically I wrote my schedule for whole the week on Monday and then tried to adhere to it.

Here’s what was awesome: my goals got a lot more realistic. Instead of just “complete project X, I’m sure I’ll come up with a way,” I had a look at how many hours I was actually going to devote to it.  I’ve done things like “spend 5 hours on project X” before, but actually assigning those hours to specific times and days brought me a new level of clarity.

Also, I really liked how much less I had to, for lack of a better term, think.  Each morning, I not only knew what I was going to be working on that day, but also the day after that, and the day after that.  So many “what ifs” and “potentials” and “just in cases” magically vanished, and I was a lot freer to focus on the task at hand. There’s a potential cure for “entrepreneurial ADD” in there, I think.

Now, what sucked? Actually following the plan.  The first two hours of the day were great, and the stuff I got done then made it worth it in itself, but things drifted a fair bit after that.  And that’s OK, it’s the first week I tried it, so there are going to be setbacks.

To do something like this successfully, it’s imperative to shut off the phone and email programs. And cover up the voicemail indicator.  I lost a good amount of time because I couldn’t resist answering the phone, which blew the whole schedule up.  That said, one of the calls was for a drop everything, last minute deadline opportunity to pitch for a lucrative project.  The kind of “what if” call that explains the entire tendency to want to answer the phone every time, but also the kind of call that really doesn’t happen that often.  For this kind of scheduling system to work, I need to decide if I want to pursue that kind of work.  Ever. (Still waiting to hear if I got this one…)

Basically, scheduling the week in advance isn’t normal behaviour, and as such it requires some abnormal changes.  I’m still not sold on whether or not it’ll be worth it, but it’s deep enough in the “don’t do what everyone else does unless you want to get what everyone else gets” category that I’m going to try it for another week or two, or maybe at least until I can get an 80% schedule match, so I might have some more insights to share soon.

Just don’t call me to ask about them.

(Oh, and in case you didn’t notice, daily posts are done, partly because I didn’t schedule them in, but also because I think the practice was more valuable for me than for you, so I’ll stick to my journal for that and work on different content here.)

One more day (off)

by Jason on December 28, 2011 · 0 comments

Vacation sign by Dan4th Nicholas

A one day break from, well, anything can easily become a two day break, which leads to the few days break, which leads to the “why not make it an even week” break, which quickly and nearly effortlessly can become an indefinite hiatus.

It’s true of fitness, habits, and yes, business.

One of the challenges to running your own business is that the hours are defined by you.  There’s no boss looking over your shoulder, no card to punch at the start and end of the day, just you.  Sure, your workload might dictate your time, but that’s a workload that was chosen by you as well, and when you get to, oh, I don’t know, Christmas/Hanukkah/Festivus/etc where in most cases the workload eases down while the rest of the world takes a break, it’s easy to take a few days off and then watch that time expand slowly.

In my case this year I took the 24th to the 27th off (yes, I’m aware that covered a weekend and two statutory holidays) with today, the 28th, being a slow “ease back in” day where I let my mind and body purge some of the excesses from the past few days.  But it very nearly became a full week, because I made the critical mistake of not actually scheduling a return date.

There are some who say that year end is the perfect time to double down and work straight through to gain an edge over your (presumably) slacker competitors.  I think there’s greater value in planned rest and recovery, but beware if it’s not strictly scheduled or you might find the time off was a lot longer than you thought it’d be.

Photo by Dan4th Nicholas

Todo lists considered harmful

by Jason on October 25, 2011 · 0 comments

empty todo list

The title’s a little misleading, but my comp sci training forces me to invoke Dijkstra whenever possible. Just so we’re clear, I’ve been using a daily todo list for most of this year, and the reasons are very simple: when I start the day with a list, I get more done.  More so if the list was written the night before. (Related tip with the same photo: start the lists at the bottom.)

The trouble is, it’s ridiculously easy to get a lot done without actually getting anything done.  Becoming a slave to getting five checkmarks per day can be incredibly counterproductive.  It’s very easy to start picking items that have the sole strategic value of being things that are accomplishable without much discomfort, so they become easy checkmarks to achieve.

And how big should each task be, if we’re going for five items a day?  My usual strategy if I’ve gone a few days without many checkmarks is to start breaking the tasks into smaller chunks, but a better plan, in hindsight, is generally to figure out the root cause of why those items never get finished in the first place (hint: it’s usually not because they’re too time consuming. Other avoidance factors are usually at play.)

Conversely, there have been days where I managed to finish everything I thought was important in the first hour of work.  Should those tasks have been bigger?  Do I get the rest of the day off?

What I’m finding is that todo lists are still hugely powerful motivators for me (like I said earlier, if I don’t have them, the morning disappears very quickly,) but for them to gain maximum effectiveness they need to be matched up with weekly, monthly, quarterly, and even annual todo lists of larger goals.  Ideally every item on a day’s list is directly tied to an item on one of the later lists, but I usually figure if I average 3 of them I’m doing OK.

On the highest and best use of time

by Jason on October 24, 2011 · 0 comments

xkcd on time management

The “highest and best use” concept is one that’s been hammered into my head relentlessly over the past year or so by various mentors and coaches.  Maybe it’s been overemphasized because of the years of corporate work that I need to deprogram from my brain (nothing wrong with the work I did, but it occurred in a different culture with different goals for both my company and myself.)

Anyway, the primary objective is to ensure that as much time as possible is spent in the best possible manner to achieve set goals.  The end result of this latest round of brainwashing is that the thing that irritates and angers me more than just about anything (a close second would be seeing bad marketing) is when I’m stuck doing something that isn’t in the “highest and best” category.  And the irritation usually comes because I know I’ve let myself get caught in a sub-optimal task.

To be clear, there’s a massive distinction between “this isn’t the best use of my time” and “this is beneath me.” Explaining that difference is beneath both of us though – I just wanted to make sure we’re talking about the same thing. If something needs to get done to get me to point B, and it can’t easily be delegated for whatever reason, it doesn’t matter what it is, it’s the highest and best thing I should be working on.

This would all be very easy, except for the fact that doing the best thing means not doing 17 other things, and those things can seem important, and they can seem a lot easier, but like I said last week, often what you don’t do matters a whole lot more than what you do.

Another side effect is that my relaxation time, as limited as it might be, is increasingly sacred to me, and I check email less and less during those windows.  My time is being spent recharging, and full and complete disengagement is essential if I’m to make the most of that.

Awareness of that need to relax isn’t the most relaxing thing in the world though – it’s tempered with the knowledge that I’m relaxing to recover from and prepare for something else that’s going to require much more concentration than I’m used to.  I’m hoping that as the concept of highest and best use gets more ingrained in my daily practices, as systems evolve to keep me on that track, and as slipups (both voluntary and involuntary) reduce, it’ll become more of a second nature.

In the meantime, the highest and best use of my time is often spent, to some degree, on simply repeating that phrase in my subconsciousness.

Cartoon credit: xkcd