Ken Haigh leadership, productivity, and technology | about

Tool Time – The Practice of Personal Productivity

I love power tools and completing projects around my house. For the first ten years of my married life, each project had that moment. The moment of frustration and despair when you recognize you are way over your head. Whether I was trying to drill a hole through a 2×4 in my attic with a large screwdriver and pliers or standing on a step ladder with a garbage can and garage door opener unit precariously resting on top, I recognized that I had the wrong tool to do the job. I am happy to report that after many trips to Home Depot and Lowe’s, I have finally reached tool saturation and can complete projects without three trips to the store.

My experiences have taught me that you need the right tool for the job. However, many productivity gurus avoid emphasizing the tools over the process/methodology for good reason. A tool can’t create lasting change in habit. The right tools, though, will remove barriers and allow you to focus on getting stuff done.

Fortunately, for the system I use, all the tools are free and don’t require you to purchase expensive software or notebooks. Here is the list of tools I use in order to support your Weekly Planning, Daily Planning, and Review sessions outlined in my previous post The Best Week Ever – The Practice of Personal Productivity.

The Inbox
You will need an email client or service that acts as your one central inbox. The email client or service should have the following features (most do):

  • Ability to handle multiple email accounts if you have more than one account. You may also leverage email forwarding so that you can receive all your messages in one place.
  • Ability to create rules that allow you to filter messages based on sender name, subject lines, and message contents. For example, I created a rule that automatically removes an email message from my inbox that contains the word “unsubscribe”. I currently have around 20 email rules that filter and and categorize my email messages. One nice to have feature is the ability to exclude a rule from filtering depending on the sender.
  • Ability to move messages into a folder or label. I create folders for reference and filtering.
  • Ability to flag or categorize emails that need to be moved onto your backlog.
  • Ability to easily search your email messages that are stored in reference.

The Calendar
You will need a calendar to manage your time during the week so that you can realize your weekly outcomes. If an activity is not on my calendar, then it does not exist. The calendar should have the following features (most do):

  • Ability to create appointments in order to block your time for your tasks and reduce interruptions.
  • Ability to set recurring appointments for tasks that need completing each week (e.g. TPS report).
  • Ability to set reminders. I typically will delegate tasks to my future self so I don’t have to worry about stuff. I find him relatively reliable.
  • Ability to set private appointments. If your calendar is shared with others, some tasks need to remain confidential.
  • Ability to integrate with your email. I find it convenient to be able to easily create an event from an email message.

The Backlog
You will need a list to capture all the projects, tasks, and things that need to be done. A backlog item has a priority, description, when it was added and when it was completed. In order to easily manage your backlog, you will need:

  • Ability to force rank and quickly sort the items on your list by priority. Every item should have a unique priority (1,2,3,4, etc.)
  • Ability to hide completed and deleted items on your list.
  • Ability to query the list in order to generate metrics and gain insight on your management of the backlog.

The Weekly Outcome List
You will need a list to record your weekly outcomes. A weekly outcome has a description of what you envisioned achieving for the week, the date, whether or not it was added after your weekly planning session, whether or not it was completed, and associated description of your lesson learned if missed. In order to manage your outcome list, you will need:

  • Ability to hide previous weeks’ outcomes.
  • Ability to query the list in order to generate metrics and gain insight in your weekly velocity.

The Daily Task List
You will need a list to record your daily tasks. A daily task has a description of a step you will take in completing a weekly outcome, the date, whether or not it was added after your daily planning session, whether or not it was completed, and associated description of your lesson learned if missed. In order to manage your daily task list, you will need:

  • Ability to hide previous days’ tasks.
  • Ability to query the list in order to generate metrics and gain insight in your daily velocity and power days.

The Dashboard
You will need to automatically capture all the metrics for the week so you can understand what went well and where you need to improve. The dashboard should have the following features:

  • Ability to display results from querying your backlog, weekly outcome list, and daily task list.

I personally use Microsoft Outlook since our corporate email uses Exchange for our email and calendar. However, Gmail and Google Calendar are great tools and are free. I also use a spreadsheet to manage my backlog, weekly outcome list, and daily task list. Originally, I used Excel though I have recently moved the spreadsheet over to Google Docs for others to use.

In the next post, we will discuss the weekly planning session.

Question for you: What tools do you use to get stuff done?

In Productivity (Agile, backlog, calendar, daily tasks, dashboard, inbox, outcomes, productivity, tools)

The Best Week Ever – The Practice of Personal Productivity

Recall the last work week where you felt good about your week. What made the week so good? Likely, you felt a sense of accomplishment and were able to complete a number of significant tasks. Wouldn’t it be great to end each week with a sense of accomplishment?

Maybe your answer is that you never have a good week or you believe that a week is not long enough to complete anything worthwhile or significant. Well, I am here to tell you that you can indeed accomplish much in a given week.

The Best Week Ever

In this post, I will give an overview of the process I use to make each week count by applying the principles we discussed previously.

We will follow a top down approach during this series and start with the three critical planning sessions I use during the week to set the right weekly outcomes, execute against those outcomes, and reflect on how to improve. For me, consistently following these three sessions makes the difference between accomplishing much or little during the week.

The Weekly Planning Session
(When: Monday AM, Duration: 1 hour)

  1. Empty inbox and create action items – My inbox contains all the stuff in my life I need to remember or take action on. If I think of something, I send myself an email. Each morning I process my inbox using the “delete, delegate, defer, and do” methodology. I avoid trying to read an email more than once. In some cases, I don’t read emails due to inbox rules I have created to automatically remove and file messages.
  2. Review lessons learned – I review last week’s lessons learned from uncompleted outcomes and tasks and seek to improve in those areas.
  3. Review and update backlog – A backlog is a prioritized list of things that need to be done. The backlog is in rank order. I move any action items created from my inbox into a backlog that I keep.
  4. Review calendar for key events over next 3 weeks – I scan my calendar for important meetings over the next few weeks and look for tasks I sent to my “future” self. The purpose is to re-prioritize backlog items that are time sensitive as well as determine how much time I have to complete my weekly outcomes.
  5. Set weekly outcomes (3-5 items) – Instead of just grabbing an item off my backlog, I use outcome visioning – viewing what wild success would look like if I completed that backlog item. David Allen, the GTD guru, states that you won’t see how to do it until you see yourself doing it, and his advice is to view the project from beyond the completion date.
  6. Set daily tasks for Monday (3-5 items) – I determine what is the next action in achieving one or more of the weekly outcomes and set goals to accomplish those tasks for that day.
  7. Block calendar – I block off time on my calendar for the day and week to reserve adequate capacity to complete my daily tasks.

The Daily Planning Session
(When: Tuesday-Friday AM, Duration: 30 minutes)

  1. Empty inbox and create action items – See above.
  2. Record yesterday’s results – Capture whether or not I completed yesterday’s daily tasks and record any lessons learned if I did not complete a task.
  3. Review weekly outcomes – I review my weekly outcomes and mark off any completed outcomes in order to help me focus on what I need to accomplish.
  4. Review previous day lessons learned – Since I will likely carryover uncompleted tasks from the day before, I review yesterday’s lessons learned to avoid making the same mistake twice.
  5. Set daily tasks (3-5 items) – I determine what is the next action in achieving one or more of the remaining outcomes and set goals to accomplish those tasks for that day.

The Weekly Review
(When: Friday PM, Duration: 30 minutes)

  1. Review lessons learned from daily tasks and weekly outcomes – I make sure I have captured lessons learned from any uncompleted tasks or outcomes and look for trends across weeks.
  2. Analyze metrics – Since I am capturing my backlog, daily tasks and status, weekly outcomes and status in a spreadsheet, I am automatically capturing metrics through a set of pivot tables to help me understand how I am doing. For example, I capture my backlog management index, my weekly outcome % complete (this week, last week, total), my daily task % complete (this week, last week, total), my velocity (# outcomes per week or tasks per day), unplanned work, and my power days.
  3. Capture what went went well for week – I find it important to remember what went well so I can repeat it next week.
  4. Capture what needs to improve for week – I seek to improve in my ability to complete items as well as make any process tweaks to increase my capacity / eliminate waste.
  5. Review backlog – I review my backlog, mark completed items, and remove items no longer relevant.

Question for you: Do you make a point to plan each week? What keeps you from spending time each to plan?

In Productivity (best week ever, daily planning, inbox zero, outcome, outcome visioning, productivity, retrospective, weekly)

Go to the Movies – The Practice of Personal Productivity

In the last post, “Why do you do What you do? The Practice of Personal Productivity”, we discussed the importance of motivation and managing our inner work life in being productive. Now let’s focus on the set of principles for personal productivity I have found useful in getting things done and use as the basis for my personal productivity system.

There are many benefits to using a system or methodology including:

  1. Reducing our anxiety
  2. Increasing our ability to keep commitments
  3. Increasing our accomplishment and associated blessing
  4. Increasing your effectiveness (not just your efficiency)

For fun, I have turned my set of 10 principles into movie posters.

10 principles for a personal productivity system

Download this presentation from slideshare.

In the next post, I will share the overall process I use each week to get stuff done.

In Productivity (movies, principles, productivity)

Why do you do What you do? The Practice of Personal Productivity

For the second quarter in a row, worker productivity was down according to this month’s U.S. Labor Department report. For the second quarter, labor productivity (i.e. output per hour) declined at an annual rate of 0.7 percent due to the fact that output did not keep pace with the rising number of hours worked. At a macro level, this might be a good sign since employers can no longer squeeze more output from their overworked labor force and will have to create jobs to increase output.

At an individual level, though, something else is happening. The result of a weaker economy has taken a toll on today’s workforce. According to the latest Well-Being Index (WBI), the Work Environment Index (e.g. job satisfaction, ability to use one’s strengths, treatment, and environment) has remained at an all-time low, resulting in the sixth consecutive month of lowest recorded scores in the history of the WBI.

We have increased our workload and responsibility due to pressure from our employers and a competitive job market. In addition, due to cost cutting, we often do not have the necessary resources to accomplish our tasks. We have become overburdened and are frustrated with our work environment and our inability to get stuff done. We have lost productivity.

So, is our productivity (or lack thereof) purely a result of our situation? I believe the answer is no. The current situation has just exposed our underlying issues and motivations.

Why do you do What you do?
In the The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, authors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer describe the inner work life system, “When something happens at work – some workday event – it immediately triggers the system: the cognitive, emotional, and motivational processes.” (p. 37)

Figure 2-2 from the Progress Principle (p. 38)

Our perception of an event, our emotional reaction, and ultimately our intrinsic motivation (motivation that comes from inside you) will drive performance and productivity – not our situation.* We are responsible for our own actions. There are no perfect work environments. As a result, the best productivity system in the world is not enough to make you go without the proper motivation and response. Think of a muscle car. You may own a car with 580-horsepower supercharged, 6.2-liter V8 engine with “barely street-legal” performance tires. If the car does not have fuel, it will not go.

Here are some tips on how I attempt to manage my inner work life:

  • Perception – I try to a make a habit of assuming that others have good intentions. Granted at times, this is hard to do. I also assume that in the end, everything will work out for good.
  • Emotion – I try to react appropriately to both negative and positive emotions. Often it is easy to over react to a situation when someone “throws a rock into our pond.” Like water, we should ripple in accordance with the size of the rock and return to a steady state. In addition, we should avoid becoming over confident when in a good mood.
  • Intrinsic Motivation – I believe that I am called to my role and responsibility. As a result, my work is significant and meaningful. When I act in accordance with what I believe, value, and speak, the next right action becomes clear. I believe my activity should be for the benefit of others and in harmony with all of my life. I am also motivated by challenging activities.

In the next post, we will look at the principles of personal productivity and the benefits. Question for you: How do you manage your inner work life?

* Since the Progress Principle was written to managers, the authors spend the majority of their time trying to help managers control the environment (the situation). The authors continue to explain that the single most powerful key event in the influence of an employee’s inner work life is progress in meaningful work. They also argue negative events such as setbacks, hinderances, and toxic environments significantly undermine an employee’s inner work life. I agree with the importance of making daily progress and removing setbacks. In fact, the system I use helps in this regard.
In Productivity (emotion, motivation, productivity, progress principle, well-being)

Happy Labor Day, Knowledge Worker – The Practice of Personal Productivity

Today we celebrate Labor Day in the United States. Contrary to popular belief, Labor Day is not just the symbolic end of summer, the start of football season, or the last day it is fashionable to wear white. Labor Day is a day created by the labor movement and dedicated to the economic and social achievements of American workers. We honor those that labor – the factory worker, the construction worker, the nurse, the supermarket bagger, the electrician, and many more who work with their hands and make everyone’s life a little bit better.

via Alexander Kjerulf

Knowledge worker, technically this day is not for us.

Unlike someone who labors, we rely on knowledge rather than physical labor in the workplace. We have a salary and likely have the opportunity to earn a much higher wage over time. We probably have a number of perks as part of our job.

Times are changing, though. Politics aside, over the last few decades, a number of forces are eroding the quality of life of a knowledge worker – the recession, rising costs, globalization, consumerism, and mobile technology. We are working longer hours, have increased responsibility from jobs that have been shed, have lost separation between work and personal life, struggle to keep up with rapid technological advances, have stress-induced conditions and illnesses, and attempt to demonstrate “value” in order to keep our jobs so that we can continue to consume things in a vain attempt to create identity.

Interestingly, the knowledge worker does not benefit from some of the reforms obtained by the labor movement.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not here to advocate the unionization of all knowledge workers nor compare the plight of the knowledge worker with the abuses and working conditions experienced by American workers in the late 1800s. I am here, however, to help others avoid a meltdown and keep pace with today’s expectations for effectiveness and productivity.

Over the next series of posts, I am going to share with you my system for getting things done influenced by lean manufacturing processes, agile development practices, and the work of David Allen. Before we jump into the actual mechanics, in the next post we will take a look at the philosophy and principles of productivity.

As always, I look forward to your comments, feedback, and interaction during this series.

In Productivity (Agile, David Allen, Knowledge Worker, Labor Day, Lean, Practice Productivity)