Monthly Archives: January 2012

People Interruptions

So I’ve been thinking about all the interruptions I have during my day: emails, phone calls, visitors, noisy neighbors, meetings, and all the ideas and things that pull my attention away.  How can I manage this stuff better?We work with people everyday, paticularly if we are in an office setting so shutting everyone out is not a long-term solution.  What to do?

Strategies for various interruptions depend on the type of distraction.  Emails and phone calls are unique categories and have been discussed previously.  So let’s look at the people side of interruptions.

Visitors are a fact of life and can be great sources of information, assistance and distractions.  The person stopping by may have information you need, feedback that helps move a project along, a resource to help complete a project or they may just have the latest gossip.  If you are focused on getting something done how to handle these best?  One option is to stop what you are doing, talk to the person and then work to get back in the flow once they are gone.  If you are not in a critical work period this may be great.  If you need to focus on the task at hand you have a couple of options to get them to move on without hurt feelings.

  1. If they are just there to chat, suggest another time to get together like lunch, coffee break or after work.
  2. If they have information you need you can get it, thank them and tell them you want to put it into action right away.  This will typically get them moving.
  3. When people come by to offer assistance, take a moment to review what they can do and then:
    1. Delegate appropriate items with clear expectations and let them go back to their desk and get to it.
    2. If more time is needed to develop a plan, schedule time later to get back together to go over the details.

One other option is to prevent visitors during critical work times.  If you have an office, close the door for an hour if needed.  This will discourage most people from interrupting you.  Typically you will not get away with a closed door all day, however if you use the method strategically it works well.  In some offices the culture will allow you to put something across your cubicle opening to simulate a closed door.  This is very culture dependent so proceed with caution.  Another way is to keep you back to your door or cubicle opening and just glance up when someone stops by.  If you keep your hands hovering near the keyboard and you don’t fully face the person they should get the hint that now is not a good time.

To handle noisy neighbors it can be very useful to have a set of headphones that you can put in when you have to concentrate.  Again, this can be culture sensitive.  I’ve worked in places that did not allow headphones, so I had to learn to tune out my neighbors.  Other places it’s okay all day or for shorter periods.

When I’ve had jobs that require attendance to lots of meetings (sometimes up to 7 – 8 hours a day) it gets difficult to find time to do actual work.  When I have critical deadlines I’ve been known to block out time on my calendar to get work done, though never more than 2 hours at a time.  This sends a signal to the people scheduling a meeting that I’m busy and forces them to ask if I could be available during that time.  I learned this technique from one of my bosses who was chronically over booked on his calendar.  The technique puts you in control of your schedule.  There’s more discussion coming on meetings as a time waster in a future post.

How do you handle the human interruptions to your work day?

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“You Have Email”

How often do you stop what you were doing to look at the email that just came?  The little pop-up that shows you the new message is very compelling and can easily draw you away from the work at hand.  When you get hundreds of emails a day this becomes a major productivity drain.  So what to do?

To manage your email instead of letting them manage you there are two key elements to consider.  First is to triage your inbox so that you focus on the important urgent items first.  Second is to limit your time in email to specific timeframes during the day.  Third is what you do with the email you get.  Let’s look at each closer.

Triage for Email:

  1. Deal with the messages that are from critical people first.  These could be your boss, a client or a peer sending you information you need.
  2. Handle the messages that are related to the important urgent items on your to-do list.
  3. Delete the junk emails.
  4. Next handle the emails that are linked to urgent but not important items on your to-do list.
  5. The last emails are the ones that were sent to you for information only.

Once you identified the most critical emails in the inbox you know where to focus your time and attention.  By knowing the important and urgent items from your to-do list you can direct your efforts where the most benefit will be.

If you are using Outlook there are several great tools that can help you triage even faster.  These are under the rules category.  For critical people you can change the color of their messages so you can quickly pick them out of your inbox.  You can also set up rules that drop messages that are sent routinely for information only to a specific folder.  That folder will then be highlighted as having new messages and you can get to them when you have the time.  It removes clutter from the inbox.  Also, a good tool can be to flag a message with a reminder if you need to follow-up at a later date.  This means you don’t have to remember what to do, the system will let you know when the time to act is due.  You can also link emails to your to-do list for future action.

Time for Email:

We are so inundated with electronic communications it can take your time away from the actual work you have to accomplish  One great way to manage this is to set aside specific times each day to handle the email.  One schedule could be:

  1. First thing in the morning
  2. Shortly before lunch
  3. Late afternoon – before leaving for the day

Now some people are in positions that require more immediate responses to questions so the above schedule doesn’t work for them at all.  So another version is to look at email once an hour, say on the hour.  Spend 10 minutes triaging the inbox and answering items that require immediate response only.  Then allow time as outlined above to deal with the rest of the emails.  This allows you to respond quickly as needed and yet gives you 50 minutes every hour for other activities that need to be done.

Maybe some other schedule will work for you, just focus on setting time aside for email and then you won’t feel the urge to answer everything as it hits your inbox.  You are back in control of your time.

Handling Each Email:

Now that you have a system for identifying the emails that need your attention and have set aside time to handle it all, now what?  How many times do you open an email?  This is the electronic equivalent of handling paper multiple times.  It is very inefficient.  Handle each message once if possible, twice if you need to gather information to respond.

Keep your inbox clean, it should have only new items or items that require additional work to close out.  Once they are addressed, file them in a folder.  This gets rid of clutter and allows you to focus on what needs to be done.

The critical messages that you are handling first – can you respond immediately?  If so respond and file the email in a folder out of your inbox.  Does it need additional work to handle it?  If so flag it or add it to your to-do list with a due date.  If you need to send out a message to get information do it right away to get the ball rolling.  Respond with a time of completion to let the sender know you are working on it if appropriate.

The items that are for information only, read them then file appropriately.  Leaving them in you inbox will create a sense that there is something more to do with it.  If you are going to forward it to someone else, do so immediately and then file it.

Strive for keeping your inbox limited to the number of items that you can realistically handle.  For me if I have to scroll to another page in my inbox I lose track of items.  I like to have no more than about 40 items in my inbox so I can see what’s there and what I have to do.  It keeps me from being overwhelmed with things that call for my attention.

Please share with me your tricks for managing your email.

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Ring-Ring – Phone Interruptions

A friend was recently venting about people answering the phone with “I’m in a meeting, I’ll call you back.”  It got me thinking about why we feel obligated to answer the phone just because it’s ringing?

Part of the issue is that the ringing or buzzing of the phone demands our attention, it cries out for action.  It becomes very urgent even if it’s not important.  This goes back to the priorities matrix, what is important or not and urgent or not.  Part of it may be that we welcome the interruption, are looking for a distraction and that phone call is perfect.

If we answer the phone everytime it rings:

  • It can interrupt our work flow
  • It can bring us a new assignment
  • It can be information that we are waiting for
  • It can bring news – good or bad, or
  • It can be a request for help or information.

If you are involved in something else this call may interrupt your productivity.  When you are working on something and things are flowing well the interruption can break your train of thought and stop the productivity.  Once you break that flow it can take additional time to get the momentum going again.  This is the essence of lost productivity.

Every time the phone rings we have a decision to make: to answer it or let voicemail pick it up.  Too often it seems that we have no choice to make – we have to answer the phone, even if we are in a meeting.  However, you do have the right to choose to answer it or not.  If you are focusing on getting something finished by a deadline or you are with another person or in a meeting it is likely  best to let it go to voicemail.  If the caller needs you to get back to them they will let you know what action is needed from you.  If they are calling with information for you they can leave it in a message.  Either way you continue with your project at hand and can deal with the message when the timing is right.

With caller id you can determine if you need to talk to that person right then or not.  If you are waiting for data from a particular person and they call, by all means you need to get the data to complete your work.  Otherwise it may be okay to let the call go for that moment.

The key here is that you do have a choice when the phone rings.  You should guard your productivity closely and let calls go to voicemail (where appropriate) to maintain that flow.  When I have to focus on a task I will turn my phone off and let it go to voicemail without interrupting me. When I’m done with the task I will turn the phone on, check messages and return calls as needed.  This puts me in charge of my time.

Take charge of your time and answer the phone when the time is right for you!

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Peak Performance Time

To help you get the most out of your day take advantage of your peak performance time.

Most of us have heard the “night owl” or the “morning lark” labels for people who stay up late or get up early.  There is a ring of truth to these labels and most of us know which category we fall into naturally.  But did you know that within your day there are hours when you will be significantly more productive than others?

During this peak period is the ideal time to tackle the harder tasks, the ones requiring the most attention to details or the most creativity.  For me, a night owl, my most creative time during my normal workday is from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m.   When my coworkers are fading from their afternoon doldrums I’m just hitting my stride.  I can also be very productivity after 8:00 p.m.

If you aren’t already aware of your peak time, reflect back on the last several days and ask yourself:

  • When did I get the most done?
  • When did I get the least done?
  • When did I feel most creative?
  • When do I struggle to concentrate on the tasks at hand?

As you look at the answers you will find you peak productive times.  If these times fit in to your normally scheduled workday you will be most productive if you can plan your day to use these times for the most demanding tasks on your list.  Use the none peak times for the routine tasks that require less focus, such as returning calls, answering emails, filing, or other similar tasks.

If your peak time is outside of your workday, then the challenges are tougher.  Can you shift your schedule to take advantage of your best times?  If not, what are your best times during your work hours?  Treat those as your work peak hours and plan the difficult tasks during that time.

Your peak performance times that occur outside your work hours are great times for tackling tough home projects or exercising.  The same principles of using your best times for the demanding or creative tasks helps you be effective in your personal time as well.

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Prioritizing Your To-Do List

Now that I have my to-do list all up-to-date and visible where do I start?

  • Do the fun items first
  • Do the easy items first
  • Deal with that email I just got
  • The phone’s ringing – I’ll deal with it
  • Start on the biggest, ugliest project on the list
  • Deal with the item that is due soonest

All of these are valid methods to get things done, however they may not help you get them all done. This is where priorities come into play. So how do you set priorities? Activities can be put into one of 4 categories below:

  1. Strategic Tasks:  Important but not Urgent – Planning, research, creativity
  2. Critical Tasks:  Important and Urgent – Emergencies, meetings, projects
  3. Time Wasters:  Not Important or Urgent – Idle chatting, web surfing, couch potato
  4. Interruptions:  Urgent but not Important – Phone calls, emails, unplanned visitors

The urgent things are the ones that everyone focuses on first because they are compelling, that phone ringing, the new email, the boss coming by with a new assignment…..  Some do need to happen right away such as the project with a fast approaching deadline, the monthly billing, the client meeting.

Unfortunately the ones most often ignored are important items that are not urgent. They are the ones that will help you achieve your goals and yet they have no time constraint on them. These are the things that fall in the category of “When I have some free time I’ll….”. Amazingly for me this free time never appears.

Franklin Covey suggests looking at your to-do list and assigning a priority to each item starting with Category 2, then moving to Category 1 and then 4. Category 3 should be avoided since these are time wasters that cause you to delay Category 1 items.   See Franklin Covey “How to Set Priorities” for more insights.

Now that you know the priority of each item, think about the time it will take for you do get it done and compare that to your schedule. If you have a meeting in 30 minutes but your highest priority item will take 2 hours, now might not be the best time to start it. Either carve out time in your schedule to dedicate to it or break it into pieces that can be fit into your day easier.

By knowing how much time things will take you can use your prioritized to-do list to fill in your day with the important things not the time wasters. It’s easy to chat or surf the web when you have 15 minutes until your next appointment but you may have something that will advance your goals which would be better use of the same 15 minutes.

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What to do?

How do you know what you have to get done?

  • Sticky notes with reminders
  • A bunch of notes on paper
  • A list in your head
  • A pile of files and papers on your desk
  • Your email or desk inbox

So many of the people I’ve worked with have desks stacked with piles of paper, notes and reminders to organize their work load.  Often they are stressed out and frustrated because they are constantly shuffling paper and notes to make sure they get it all done on time.  This creates inefficiency due to the extra work of managing the paper to ensure nothing is late or gets dropped.

I challenged one excessive sticky note user to use Outlook (her email system) to create a to-do list and a flagging system for emails to get control of her work load.  It took her a week to collect and organize all her notes and get the new system in place.  That was a VERY stressful week for her.  Then after two weeks of using the new system, she found she had more time to get work done and was getting everything done much more efficiently.  Her stress level went way down as well.

Tips to make a To-Do list work:

  1. Must be quick to update (15 minutes per day max)
  2. Easily accessible and visible
  3. Allows you to prioritize or set due dates

The to-do list should be a tool, not a task, so find a simple way to capture the things you have to do.  Setting a time limit on managing it will help you keep it as a tool not an activity trap.  Doing the review at the end of your work day can help clear your mind of work and set the stage for a smooth start in the morning.

Some ideas for effective to-do lists:

  • Task list in Microsoft Outlook
  • Evernote – allows you to sync your computer, phone and tablet
  • Manual list that is easily visible/referenced
  • Other apps for your smart phone are available

If you are spending more than 15 minutes a day on your to-do list, take some time to find a new method of tracking your work load.  You will get more done, more efficiently and your stress will drop.

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Hello and Welcome!

Hi there!  I’ve started this blog as a way to organize my thoughts and ideas on personal productivity and effectiveness.  As 2012 starts I am facing a year of change and challenges and have recognized that I’ve lost touch with the things I’ve learned over 20+ years of working and managing a household.  With everything going on in my world I need to get myself back on track and decided to use this forum to help me focus and fine tune the things I’ve learned.

A bit of background on me:  I’m a wife of 25 years and a mother of two teenage boys.  My husband and oldest son both have different aspects of ADHD.  My husband is adult ADD with inattentive challenges and my son is challenged with some inattentive and more impulsivity control issues.  This means it’s up to me to create the structure and organization needed to keep our house on track and calm.  Additionally, I spent 15 years as a process engineer in various manufacturing environments before moving on to supervision, then onto training and development.  Much of my time in all of those roles was dedicated to helping others learn to produce a better product, be more efficient in their jobs and learn skills to advance their careers.  Helping others manage their work better has always been the most rewarding part of my job and is where I am dedicating my efforts moving forward.

As I embark on a journey to create a more productive and creative environment in my life I hope that you will find tips, tools or techniques that will help you become more productive, more creative, and less stressed in your own life.

Please share with me your thoughts and experiences.  Each of us has a unique perspective on life and we can learn so much from embracing new ideas.

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