Time Management: Pomodoro Meets Parkinson’s Law

Struggling with Time Management?

We’ve all heard of Parkinson’s Law:  Work expands to fill the time available. It’s Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s satirical notion published in a 1955 Economist article. In the article, Parkinson lampoons the British civil service for creating more jobs and then creating more work for those in the jobs to do. These days Parkinson’s law is generally used to describe time management: our relationship with time, work and procrastination. It does seem to be a basic human tendency to dedicate more time than is necessary to a task.

Time Management

Spiral Clock by Robbert van der Steeg used under Creative Commons license.

The Key to Better Time Management:

Parkinson describes the act of writing a postcard, which if you have nothing else to do, can take up the whole day.  But the thing is we do have something else to do. Lots of somethings to do. So why are we still allowing small tasks to take over our days? If work expands to fill the time allowed, is the converse not also true? Can we reign in the time we dedicate to a task and therefore accomplish more in a given day? I think we can.

I will never forget my university’s opening convocation in which the Dean urged us to “use out 10 minutes-es.” What she meant was for us to not assume we couldn’t accomplish anything in short periods of time. I certainly did my share of wasting time in college, but in the nearly 30 years since I heard that speech I have come to realize that she was right.

Take Pomodoro, one of the time management strategies that I have embraced for the past few years. The basic idea is that you set a timer for about 20 minutes and get down to work. When the timer goes off, you take a very short break, then you set the timer again for more work. In addition to getting you focused and working it’s supposed to teach you how long it takes to accomplish varying tasks, i.e. “I can write a blog post in 3 Pomodoros.”

It’s true, I can write a blog post in 3 Pomodoros. I can outline a few blog posts in one Pomodoro, then write a blog post in one Pomodoro, then edit it in a third Pomodoro. Or, I can choose to not set my timer and stare at a blank page for a while, get distracted, and perhaps outline a single blog post in a day. I am always amazed at what I can accomplish in 20 focused minutes if I use the notion of time pressure.

Time Management is an Active Task:

A few years back I decided to consider how long it actually took me to complete certain tasks. I chose to look at a few tasks I hated–blow-drying my hair and washing dishes by hand. Convinced that each of these tasks must take an hour to complete, I was really surprised to learn that it was just 5 minutes. Perhaps it was how much I hated the tasks that was making me think they took much longer. Perhaps it was my notion of time that was unreliable; after all, we say often talk about time in inaccurate measurements–have you ever actually timed one minute when you are sitting still? It seems like an eternity. And it is a decent amount of time.

In a recent Lifehack.org article they suggest assigning the time that you think a task will take, then dividing that time allotment in half to actually complete the task. This seems like a worthwhile experiment. They also suggest identifying those tasks that tend to suck up a lot of time and reducing the amount of time you allow yourself to spend on them.

Elastic Time Management:

Parkinson himself wrote, “work is elastic in its demands on time.” Why not turn his theory on its head and make it work for you? Work can expand to fill the time available, but it doesn’t have to.  Control the time you spend on tasks and you will have more time to spend.

Have you found ways to effectively manage your time? Do you control the time you spend on tasks? I’d love to hear about what time management strategies work for you. Are your time management skills letting you down? I can help with that. Contact me to find out how!

A Quick Guide to Effective Meetings

Just about every client I have ever had complains about the amount of time their organization devotes to meetings. Everyone wishes effective meetings were part of their daily work culture. It seems a universal gripe that organizations spend too much time in meetings. I even have a client who began a series of meetings about meetings!  And while it is easy to eye-roll this, I actually applaud this organization for the proactive step they took to ensure that time spent in meetings was productive time.

Why Don’t We Have Effective Meetings?

People don’t run effective meetings because they simply don’t know how.  We know enough to suspect when a meeting might be necessary but it is more challenging to know how to structure a meeting for a specific need, know who needs to be around the table and keep discussion moving in a productive direction.

How To Have Effective Meetings

The first step toward having effective meetings is be mindful about them.  Simply scheduling a meeting doesn’t ensure you will accomplish what you need to accomplish.  What is the objective.  Is a meeting the best way to accomplish this?

  • If a meeting is the best way to accomplish this, determine who needs to be there to ensure that this objective is met.
  • Ask participants for agenda items about a week before the meeting
  • Finally, draw up a draft agenda and circulate it.  Be sure to share the objective and any additional reading material to participants in advance of the meeting.

Effective Meetings Come in Many Forms

Choose the most effective format for your meeting.  Maybe you need a brief check in so remaining standing is the best format.  Perhaps you need a traditional hour-long sit-down at a conference table. Maybe you need to schedule a half-day or full-day retreat to accomplish what you need to do.  Or perhaps it makes sense to take a 45 minute or hour long walk to run the most effective meeting.

Inc. recently published an article advocating for more variety in the length of time we schedule meetings for. Just because your calendar software defaults at an hour doesn’t mean every meeting has to be that length.  Consider the following guidelines:

  • 10-15 minutes for brief check-ins and updates.
  • 15-30 minutes for one-on-one meetings with colleagues and reports.
  • 50 minutes for standard meetings addressing multiple issues or topics.
  • 90 minutes for problem solving sessions like brainstorming.

Running Effective Meetings

Meetings are most effective when you stick to the agenda.  It’s advisable to include a rough time estimate for each agenda item to stay on track. If someone brings up something off topic, use a “parking lot” to record the idea.  A parking lot is simply a place to record ideas that are important but not up for discussion at that particular meeting.  People who run effective meetings don’t take meeting time to discuss items off topic.

Effective meetings also have someone taking notes. Usually note-taker is not the facilitator.  The notes should be distributed to participants after the meeting with a list of follow up activities, due dates and people who are responsible for follow up. This keeps the work moving forward.

How To Enable Effective Meetings

There is a great Ted talk on creating a culture of effective meetings, in which the speaker talks about MAS or Meeting Acceptance Syndrome–this is the condition that makes us mindlessly accept a meeting without knowing what will be discussed and if we are an appropriate addition to the discussion.  If someone invites you to a meeting but has not shared an objective or agenda, question them about the purpose of the meeting. We can all take back our time from ineffective meetings by modeling and encourage effective meeting behavior for our colleagues.

Effective meetings are within our power! What will you do today to ensure meetings are more effective?

Productivity Tips: (Personalized Productivity, part 3)

Productivity Tips: The Most Important is Strategy

Parts one and two of this series highlight the most important tip:  clarify your personal and professional mission in order to clarify your priorities. But I can’t write a series on productivity without including some general productivity tips for managing your time.  This post includes those productivity tips I encountered time and time again while researching this topic.

Productivity Tips:  10 Tips You Can Practice Right Now

  1. Focus : Although you may feel like you get a lot done when you multitask, a Stanford University Study has shown that this feeling is an illusion.  Instead, focus on one thing, and group like tasks together.  For instance, you will be more productive if you do all your editing in one go, group meetings together, and do your reading in one session. Perhaps the most valuable of all productivity tips: check your information inputs only at certain times.  Checking email, Facebook, Twitter, and other informational inputs isn’t a time filler or diversion.  Checking your inputs is a purposeful activity that must be limited or it can take over your day. Interruptions derail your focus. having an “open door policy” is only a good thing if it’s figurative. Sometimes we need to be alone to get something done. Unplug, retreat, close the door, go off the grid if you have to.
  2. Get ready for tomorrow the night before: What can you do today to make tomorrow really productive? Do that. Create a system for preparing for your day. Make your to do list the night before. Know what you will have for breakfast and lunch. Plan your outfit the night before. Think about what you need to have with you and pack your bag. Plan what you will do during your commute time. Have podcasts ready to listen to or reading material ready. Know which short tasks you can complete during down time. Look at your calendar and be prepared for what you will do.  In addition to organizing your thoughts this has the effect of helping you to visualize success, much as a pro athlete mentally goes over his or her game before it starts.
  3. Partner with productive people: Bad habits can be very tempting. Surround yourself with people who use their time well.  If you have a big deadline or are working on improving your productivity, an accountability partner can help you to stay on task. Don’t forget delegation. Partnering with productive people means knowing whom you can trust and trusting them!  And think about delegation broadly. Outsourcing non-work tasks is also a type of delegation.
  4. Advocate productive meetings:  When you run a meeting, have an agenda.  Stick to the time allotted and the objects you set. If you find yourself frequently called in to inefficient meetings, do something about it! Here is a 7 minute Ted Talk from David Grady about taking back your time, one of the most entertaining and contagious productivity tips there is!
  5. Say no:  Keep your mission in mind and work on those tasks that are aligned with it. Lots of us are uncomfortable saying no.  How about, “I can’t give this the attention it deserves right now, ” or “This is a worthy idea but doesn’t really fit in with my strategic priorities right now.” If those sentences also give you discomfort, at least say, “Let me think about it,” to buy you some time to evaluate if the proposal fits with your strategic priorities.
  6. Stand while you work: Spending part of your day at a standing workstation makes you less tempted to be distracted from your tasks. You don’t need anything fancy. Lots of people prop a box on their desk. I sometimes use my laptop on my kitchen counter. Ikea makes some nice wall mounted tables, that if installed at the correct height would be great standing workstations.
  7. Know when not to be productive: Probably the most important of all the productivity tips is to know when you have done enough. Know when you just aren’t going to get it done today. Take breaks to feed your soul and prevent burnout. As Stephen Covey says, sharpen the saw.
  8. Put technology to work: Filters, apps, the right smart-phone, the right software and the right tools can all help you to be more productive.
  9. Consider alternative approaches: Lots of people report that their productivity is enhanced by vision boarding and the law of attraction.  Meditating makes some people (like me) feel like there is more time in the day. The currently popular Marie Kondo tidying plan seems to help some people focus.  Think about productivity tips broadly to include some unconventional approaches.
  10. Consider your productivity style:  Carson Tate has an interesting concept, that our productivity is influenced by our cognitive style.  You can take an online assessment to determine your style and your profile will include suggested tools and approaches to help you achieve maximum productivity.
  Which of these tools have you tried? Which are your favorites?  
I'd love to hear about it!

This is the third and final part in a three part series on productivity. It is based on material I presented at Spark 2015 on June 16, 2015, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The conference was targeted at women entrepreneurs but the material is really universal. 

Productivity Tools (Personalized Productivity, part 2)

Productivity Tools–Using Your Mission:

In part 1 of this series I wrote about the importance of establishing your mission statement.  Of all the productivity tools available, clarifying your mission is the most important. Your mission statement can be used to inform your goals. This ensures that your goals support your mission. Once your goals are aligned with your mission the tasks that comprise them will also reflect what is truly important to you.  Doing tasks that have personal importance is a whole lot easier than doing tasks that do not have personal meaning.  Your mission can also help to filter other tasks.  We receive many tasks through email and other communication modes that are not necessarily related to our goals.  By using your mission and goals as a filter for these tasks you can delegate, defer or simply refuse the ones that do not support your mission.

The Productivity Ninja offers this great workflow diagram for managing email.  This productivity tool could actually be used for any task that comes your way.  When a task lands in your lap the very first question to ask is, “is this important to me at all?” That is the time to compare it to your mission and goals.  Does the task align with your mission? How does it get you where you want to be?

Productivity Tools for Determining Priorities:

The “Wheel of Life” is a simple but effective productivity tool for assessing your fulfillment in various life areas.  You can simply create a wheel yourself or use one of the many wheel of life templates available online.   Keep in mind that you can create whatever categories you wish in your wheel.  Rate each category on a scale of one to 10 and connect the rating dots.  You get a nice little radar chart that indicates areas of your life on which you may wish to focus.  That is to say, areas of your life where you may wish to create some goals and tasks.  Wheel of Life productivity tools

 

Stephen Covey’s “Time Management Matrix,” also known as the “Eisenhower Box” is another tool that can help to monitor goal and task alignment.  The box simply plots the urgency vs. importance of various tasks.  To use the box, plot items from your To Do list on it, assessing how they stack up in terms of urgency and importance.  Spend your time on important tasks (boxes 1 and 2) rather than urgent ones.  And avoid the “time sucks” of box 4!time management matrix productivity tools

 

Productivity Tools:  From Idea to Action

An essential productivity tool is time boxing.  Time boxing is putting each action into a time in which you will do it.  Basically, it is making an appointment with yourself to work on a specific item.  One type of time boxing is the Pomodoro technique.  Pomodoro is one of the best productivity tools I have come across.  I have written about this technique before, both on this blog at over at The Productive Librarian. The technique is simple:  set a timer for 20 minutes and work like crazy during that time, then take a break. Repeat as often as necessary.

One of the great things about Pomodoro in particular and time boxing generally as productivity tools is that it will help you to determine how long it takes to accomplish certain tasks.  The ability to estimate how long it takes to do something is really helpful in planning your time.  It can also greatly improve your attitude about certain tasks.  I used to think that certain tasks I hated, like blow drying my hair or washing dishes, took much longer than they actually did once I timed them.  The same is true for work tasks.  Being realistic about time estimates will help you to better plan your day and feel more positive about necessary actions that aren’t necessarily your favorite. And I promise you, many tasks will take less time than you think.

Part 3 of this series provides 10 tips and tools for productivity.

  Have you tried the Wheel of life, the Time Management Matrix, 
Pomodoro or other types of time boxing?   I'd love to hear how they
 worked for you. 

This is the second in a three part series on productivity. It is based on material I presented at Spark 2015 on June 16, 2015, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The conference was targeted at women entrepreneurs but the material is really universal. 

Personalized Productivity (part 1)

Why Personalize Productivity?

Productivity is more important than ever. We have ever-increasing demands on our time. We are continually barraged with information through all types of media and devices. We need to manage both inputs and outputs. Naturally people turn to productivity and time management systems for relief. But the list of time management systems and tools is equally daunting. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to productivity. Everyone must find their own tools. I focus on the specific tools and tips in part 3 of this series.

Productivity Fundamentals:

Stephen Covey writes that time management is really personal management. Time management is managing yourself. It is self discipline. Certainly a simple concept, but one that’s very difficult to do.  The first step is knowing your personal priorities.

Time management systems all have commonalities. They advise collecting your tasks then dedicating time to do them.  There is a certain amount of variety in the way this is described and the flavor of how this happens, which is great because you can pick a system that works for you.

Productivity

Most time management systems focus on the Goals to tasks to time box part of the diagram.  That leaves out the most important part: knowing your strategy. Your personal strategy—your mission—helps to inform your goals. Each goal and task will be easier to accomplish because it will be meaningful to you.

Productivity and the Mission Statement:

Organizations large and small need mission statements, as do individuals.  Your mission statement is your “home truths;” your raison d’etre; your statement of purpose. Mission Statements can help you to filter the important from the less important (or unimportant). Your mission statement will help you set your direction. You can begin to unearth your mission rather quickly by reflecting and writing on the following questions:

  1. What do you do? What product of service do you provide?
  2. Who do you do this for?
  3. Why do you do it`?
  4. What makes your product or service unique so that a client would choose you to do it?

For entrepreneurs, the personal mission is often entwined with business mission.  If you work for an organization it can be helpful to write a personal mission as well. Some additional questions might be helpful to personalize your mission.

  1. What do you want?
  2. Are you ready for this?
  3. What commitment is necessary to achieve it?

Some additional exercises that might be helpful to clarifying your mission include the following writing topics:

  1. Write about an influential person. What positive impact did he or she have? What qualities do you admire most? What qualities did you gain from this person?
  2. List 10 things that are most meaningful to you today? What do you live for and love in life?
  3. Write yourself a letter:  write a letter as your future self. What have you accomplished?
  4. Try to encapsulate what is important to you in one word. Focus on that word for a period of time and evaluate how that focus has impacted your work-life. 

In part 2 of this series I will explain some of the productivity tools that help you to use your mission to improve your productivity.

  Has clarifying your mission been helpful to you?
 I'd love to hear why or why not. 

This is the first in a three part series on productivity. It is based on material I presented at Spark 2015 on June 16, 2015, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The conference was targeted at women entrepreneurs but the material is really universal. 

How to Get Unstuck: 3 Easy Strategies

How to Get Unstuck

Stuck.  We have all been there.  Maybe it’s writer’s block.  Maybe you just can’t get started. Maybe there’s a deadline looming and you can’t seem to figure out the next right thing to do.  When you are stuck you need easy, concrete actions to take to get yourself moving again.  Here are three strategies to help you get unstuck.

How to Get Unstuck Strategy #1:  Go for a Walk

Ever notice how you get your most creative ideas when you aren’t trying to be creative? One of the reasons I love to attend conferences is that as I sit listening to others talk about their work I get great ideas about my work.  Sometimes they are related, more often they are not.  Maybe you get these ideas in the shower, or as you are falling asleep or at the gym.  I recently read that people became more creative after reading the phone book.  Whatever you do, do something different.  Getting outside and going for a walk can be enough to disengage your brain from stuck mode and get you going again.

How to Get Unstuck Strategy #2:  Set a Timer

Don’t know how to get unstuck?  One word:  Pomodoro.  This is hands-down my favorite anti-procrastination/time management/productivity/getting unstuck technique.  I love it for its simplicity, elegance and easy.  Anyone can do it!  I wrote a short post on Pomodoro last fall.  It includes the basic steps and a handy video from the official Pomodoro website.

How to Get Unstuck Strategy #3:  Make a Mental Map

how-to-get-unstuck

I recently figured out that getting stuck is part of my creative process.  I am not proud of this but it certainly gives me a lot of opportunities to practice how to get unstuck!  One I recently tried was making a mental map.  The process was quite simple:  I just wrote the topic in the center of a piece of paper and then created a graphical representation of all the aspects of the topic I thought were important.  Not an artist? As you can see by what I produced neither am I!  But the product served as a nice outline and before I knew it my writing was back on track.

Go Get Unstuck!

There is an old joke that goes, “How do you eat a whale?”  The answer is, “one bite at a time.”  Sometimes how to get unstuck is as simple as asking what the one next right step is and doing it.  It is easy to become paralyzed by the big picture.  Keep your thinking small and just do the next right thing.  So the next time you are feeling stuck try one of these strategies to get yourself going again.  Got some other strategies that help you get unstuck?  I’d love to hear about them.

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Time Management Lessons from a Tomato

Hands down, my favorite time management technique is Pomodoro.  I don’t claim to be a Pomodoro expert, and didn’t really know there were Pomodoro experts until I began to research for for this post. In fact, the technique is trademarked, so perhaps I should say I practice a Pomodoro-type of time management. I love Pomodoro because it is easy to do and IT WORKS!

The technique is quite simple and all you need to get started is something you probably already have:  a kitchen timer.  Here’s how I practice Pomodoro:

  1. Sit down at my workspace with a specific task I wish to accomplish.
  2. Set the timer for approximately 20 minutes (official Pomodoro practice says 25–I adjust this according to task and how I am feeling).
  3. Work like crazy until the timer goes off.  After that, it’s break time for 5 minutes.  I often work a bit over the time limit as Pomodoro is a great way for me to stop procrastinating and get to work.
  4. Repeat.

The video below describes some advanced ways to use the technique to further master your time.

Honor the Pauses

When was the last time you enjoyed a quiet moment? Such moments are rare treats in today’s multitasking society. But calm, meditative moments are essential for tapping into our creativity–the creativity that’s essential for problem solving, leadership and generally getting things done.

We often hear people say that they are too busy and need some quiet, but quiet is very rarely something that you luck into. Quiet is something worth seeking out in our daily lives. While it might not be realistic to carve a 90 minute yoga class or a walk in the park into our busy schedules, what about simply honoring the pauses inherent in our days? The next time you have a few minutes to wait in line at the grocery store or are waiting for a subway, why not use your time to rest your mind? Instead of getting frustrated at the next red light or slow traffic, why not appreciate the silence inside your car? Or perhaps occasionally enjoy the rare treat of consciously doing one task at a time?

We need quiet to process, analyze and plan the best way forward.  We need to stop.  Then we need to think.  And to do this we need to take advantage of the opportunities for quiet in every day.

 

Sleep Procrastination

I admit it, there is not much I procrastinate about, but I sometimes procrastinate about going to sleep.  That’s why I was so fascinated to see this article published this summer in Frontiers in Psychology.  The authors conclude that bedtime procrastination is the result of difficulty with “self regulation,” otherwise known as self discipline.

Perhaps this is important from a psychological research perspective, but it certainly doesn’t help me to know that basically I just need to make myself stop procrastinating and go to sleep.  Equally unhelpful is the conclusion that those who struggle with bedtime procrastination are likely to suffer from insufficient sleep.

I have long thought that my bedtime procrastination results from a desire not to let the day go, because some aspect of the day was unfulfilling and I’d like to change that in (literally)  the 11th hour.  I feel I want to spend more time with friends or my spouse who worked late that day or finally finish up the project I’ve been working on or otherwise work on something that gives my life meaning and purpose.  I find I am less keen to go to sleep on days when I didn’t or couldn’t get the most of out of my day.  So I’m going to work on reducing my sleep procrastination by doing my best to get the interaction, productivity and personal fulfillment I need each and every day–during the day!.  How about you?

Sharpening the Saw

On Fridays I often tag my tweets #sharpenthesaw.  (Shameless plug:  @sweetcoachcons) These tweets are decidedly different from my usual posts on libraries, leadership and personal effectiveness.  I hope they are funny, or perhaps speak to the need for rest and rejuvenation.  At times I’m sure they are just plain silly.  You probably recognize the tag as referencing the 7th Habit from Steven Covey’s famous book.

The concept of balanced self renewal is so important that I like to remind people of it every week, just before the weekend.  Historically a time to nurture ourselves physically, spiritually and socially, the weekend is increasingly under attack from our continually connected world.  To be our most effective we need quiet moments, we need to tend to our physical well being, and we need to connect with our loved ones.  We need to break from the act of sawing and sharpen our saws.

This is what I will be doing for the remainder of the Summer.  I’ll be enjoying a sabbatical from work, spending time with my beloved family,  outdoors, relaxing, reading fiction, connecting with friends and generally giving my brain time and space to process.  A de-frag if you will.

I’ll be back in September, rested, restored and ready to work again.  I’d love to hear your restorative plans for the summer!

To comment, click on the speech bubble to the right
 of the blog post title (or click “leave a reply” at the 
end of the post), then click on the tiny orange speech 
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