It pains me to announce that my grand experiment with using electronic time management systems has officially come to an end (sort of). You see, for the past several years, I’ve been using a variety of tech tools to help organize my life and work—appointments, tasks, projects and more. But now, I’m back to paper (sort of).
Don’t worry: I’ll explain what I mean by “sort of” in a bit. In fact, I’m going to give you a complete overview of my brand new time management system. I’m calling this a “reboot” since it’s really an opportunity to start over fresh (which I just love).
But before I get into all that, I want to share what I learned about the pros and cons of electronic time management systems since this is one of the most common questions I receive regarding organization. Hopefully I can help at least a few of my dear readers avoid the struggles I’ve encountered for years now.
Warning: This article is quite long and detailed. It’s intended for those who really love this kind of stuff (like me). If you’re not interested in the pros and cons but you DO want to know more about my newly rebooted organizational system, skip to the last section labeled My New “Hybrid” System.
Safety in the cloud
I moved to electronic systems after I lost my paper planner on an airplane in 2010. It was an absolute nightmare to recreate my appointments and to-do list from memory, and I didn’t do a very good job as you might imagine. That’s when I said, “There’s got to be a better way!” And voila, my electronic adventure began.
It’s absolutely true that electronic systems provide an extra element of safety. Even if you lose your computer (TOTAL NIGHTMARE!), you can still access your online accounts from your iPad, your smartphone, and other computers. And anything stored on your hard drive can be retrieved from backup files (I use Carbonite for those who are interested).
So this is one pro with a pretty powerful benefit. When it comes to paper organizational methods, there’s always a risk of loss. It’s rare that I lose things, but when it’s something this important, it’s pretty devastating. So the safety offered from electronic systems is hard to overlook.
Always at your fingertips
In theory, electronic tools are always in your pocket or just a click away—whether on your phone, tablet, or laptop. This means you should be able to quickly and easily capture information no matter where you are or what you’re doing.
Unfortunately, even for a tech-savvy person like me, this proved to be far less simple than I initially imagined. To access online systems, you have to (duh!) have Internet access. Sadly, that’s not always possible. And even when it is, the wonderful world wide web isn’t always as fast as you’d like it to be when you just want to jot down a quick note.
Plus, I experienced a variety of syncing issues between my devices. Things I had input on my phone wouldn’t show up on my computer and vice versa. I’d spend hours troubleshooting, and with many of these problems, I never found solutions.
Some online task and project management systems are more up to speed on this kind of thing and have apps for your phone to make capturing information easy even when you’re offline. They then sync up with the online system when you have Internet access again. Others are installed directly on your computer as software and are ONLY available from that one device.
I’m sure there are many great systems that work seamlessly together, sync immediately and perfectly every time, and have tons of tools to integrate with multiple devices. My point in sharing this with you is to simply illustrate the importance of doing your research ahead of time. Know which devices you’re going to use, how you like to use them, and what you’re going to use them for and make sure the time management tech tools you select are designed to play nicely.
Electronic time management tools come in all shapes and sizes, from super simple to massively complex. Most offer a variety of features you can use or not use as you see fit. What that means is that you have the ability to create a specific, customized and sophisticated system for yourself. Depending on the tool you choose, you can use color codes, set priority levels, track progress, establish deadlines and even ask your system to remind you (via text or email or pop-up usually) of appointments or to-do items or anything else you so desire. If you’re willing to invest the time and go through the process of really defining your system, the right technology can provide almost any organizational feature you can dream of.
For me, one of the biggest frustrations with electronic systems is that jotting down a quick note on a tech tool will never be as fast as grabbing a piece of paper and writing. Even if it’s just a click or two away, it still requires a different kind of thinking. If I’m in the zone working on something (as I am now, in a Word document) and I’m suddenly reminded of a task I need to add to my to-do list, I’d have to click out of my current application, click into my task management system, determine the right place to log this item, perhaps complete some other unnecessary parameters (like due date, etc.) and then click back over to my Word document. Compare that to my new system—a running paper list in my planner (more on that later). I can grab a pen, jot my to-do item down, and keep going with my current task.
To circumvent this problem in the past (when I was using electronic tools), I collected post-it notes throughout the day and then went into my task management system at the end of the day to log all the items at once. While this worked for a while, it really just added an extra step and extra clutter. Plus, too often I got distracted and ended up with piles of post-it notes that hadn’t been entered.
Learning a new system
Any electronic system is going to have a learning curve. It takes time to train yourself on something new, no matter how simple or “intuitive” it may be. Plus, you have to learn how to make the system work for your needs. Some of the features won’t apply to you while others will sound good in theory but in practice you’ll find them to be overkill. So you need a good 30 days of use to figure it out and really get in a flow with it. Only at that point will you be able to determine for certain if it’s something that really suits your needs or whether you should try a different system (at which point, you start all over). I went through this at least four or five times in the span of just a few years. I tried Omnifocus, Basecamp, Remember the Milk, Google Tasks, Evernote, and even a good old-fashioned Excel spreadsheet.
Talk about wasting time to manage time!!
I don’t know about you, but I get a little sick of technology. Sometimes, I just want to disconnect. It’s so easy to say, “I’m just gonna jump into my calendar really quick and update a few things,” and the next thing you know, you’re watching cat videos on YouTube.
Personally, I like paper. I like colorful pens. I like pretty organizers and stickers and notepads. Online systems just don’t have the same visual appeal. For me, I’m motivated to use something when I like looking at it. And no system will work if you don’t use it. In my opinion, even the electronic systems that are really well designed don’t compare to a pretty, well-organized paper planner. (For those who are interested, I think Basecamp is the best visually speaking, though still a distant second to paper).
Sometimes it’s TOO much
Look, my needs (and the needs of most people) are pretty basic. I need a place to put my appointments so I don’t miss them and a place to capture and track things I have to do. All the other stuff is gravy on top, but not really necessary. If I stay reasonably on top of things (by utilizing a few of the tools listed below), I don’t need all that other mumbo jumbo offered in electronic systems. In reality, those systems just inspire procrastination—they give me more opportunities to fiddle around with my organizational systems rather than actually get things done. The key to a good system for me is simplicity, and electronic tools are always more complicated than paper.
My New “Hybrid” System
So here’s where I’ve landed on all this: I’m now using a hybrid model that is mainly paper with a few electronic elements thrown in for good measure. To make this easy, I’ll just outline the key characteristics of my new system as simply as possible below:
I’m using a paper planner again (hooray!). It’s a Franklin Covey binder with the following elements:
Month-at-a-glance calendar sheets (on 2 pages). This is where I mark travel and other significant events throughout the month. I don’t bother with daily appointments here.
2-page-per-day sheets. This is where I put appointments and to-do items for each day. This is also where I track my various daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly “trackable” activities, which I mark with colorful smiley face stickers when they’re done (totally motivating even though it feels like I’m a first grader). These items are currently:
Completing my morning routine
Completing my weekly review
Career Academy maintenance
Various other private personal and professional activities
Why I love the paper planner approach:
Everything is in one place. If there’s ever an opportunity to jot something down on a post-it, I can stick it to a page inside the book and know it’s safe. I have plenty of space for notes each day. The colors are fun, the pages are pretty and it’s so, so nice to just flip from page to page (even when I’m away far away from my computer and other tech devices) and see what’s going on and coming up (as well as what’s passed if I’m interested).
I also use a separate paper notebook for project notes. I consider a project anything that has multiple to-do items. Basically, it’s something that I wouldn’t put on my daily to-do list because it’s too big to complete all at once. These items have to be broken up into pieces and then those pieces can be distributed onto appropriate daily lists. This separate notebook is where I brainstorm and organize and ensure that these projects aren’t forgotten. I’ve created specific project goals for the next 6 months as well as the next year to help keep this focused. Anything that’s not a part of those goals gets put at the very back of this notebook for safekeeping and future reference.
The morning routine and weekly review mentioned in the “trackable activities” above are two critical elements that make this system work. These are the times when I get a bird’s eye view of what’s going on and what’s coming up so I know I’m staying on top of everything. This is when tasks and priorities are established, shifted, etc. If something wasn’t completed yesterday, I highlight it, and transfer it to today’s list (or somewhere else). If something new has come up, I add it to the appropriate list on the appropriate day. A variety of things take place during the morning routine and weekly review process (I have a checklist for each to make sure I don’t forget anything). If you want to hear more about this, leave a comment and I’ll make a note to write a blog post on it in the future.
Because I’ve had the experience of losing my paper planner in the past, I’m not taking any chances. I use Google Calendar as a back up for all my important dates, travel, appointments, etc. Yes, it’s an extra step but it’s fast and the peace of mind it offers is invaluable. Plus, if something is absolutely critically important and I’m afraid of forgetting it, I can add an email reminder. (I try not to do this too often as I got a little obsessed with it in the past and found the emails stacking up quickly, which defeats the purpose.)
Electronic Contact Info
I use Gmail and my phone for managing contact information including email addresses, phone numbers and physical/mailing addresses. I also have a Word document that includes emergency contact information (i.e., parents, travel companies, credit card companies, etc.) in case I ever lose my phone, computer and/or wallet. I keep a copy of this in my online Dropbox and a physical printed copy in my planner.
So that’s my new system. You can see that I haven’t completely abandoned technology, but I certainly am not looking for it to be the end-all-be-all solution. Paper helps me simplify. In my opinion, it just feels easier and more natural for daily task and appointment management.
I keep my planner open on my desk throughout the day and keep it with me as much as possible when I’m away from my desk. Like anything, you have to really use it to make it work.
I encourage you to take a look at your own organizational systems and see if they need a reboot. I didn’t do it until I was feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. Now that I’ve got this new system in place, I feel better and I’m getting more done. Don’t wait until you’ve reached a breaking point. Start today and enjoy the benefits now.
A big part of managing expectations in the workplace involves understanding deadlines and making them work for you. There’s nothing that makes you look more unprofessional than missing an important (or even unimportant!) deadline—and few things break trust as quickly.
In order to manage such time targets effectively, you might have to proactively renegotiate them at times. Unfortunately, many professionals don’t know how to properly do this so they end up creating new problems for themselves when they try. To help ensure this doesn’t happen to you, follow these simple steps.
1. Don’t agree in the first place.
If you know a deadline is unreasonable from the very beginning, don’t accept it. It’s your job to educate your colleagues regarding expectations. If they think a task takes much less time than it actually does, inform them of the reality. This will help them better gauge timelines in the future.
To be clear: This doesn’t mean you should decline or renegotiate deadlines that stretch you. It’s fine to accept something that pushes you past your comfort zone. In fact, that’s a requirement in today’s workplace. What we’re talking about here are deadlines that simply don’t make sense given the circumstances (other priorities, time constraints, etc.).
Then, skip to step number 3.
2. The sooner the better.
If you’re working with an established deadline you’ve already agreed to, don’t wait until the last minute to tell the necessary parties that it’s next to impossible to meet. As soon as you realize there’s a chance it can’t be done, speak up. Lack of communication is probably the biggest problem most people have with deadline management.
3. Offer a reasonable alternative.
Instead of simply saying you can’t meet a deadline, provide a reasonable alternative that can be met. Don’t forget to give yourself some wiggle room in there. You can’t always predict your workload and Murphy’s Law ensures anything that can go wrong will. A good rule of thumb is to “under promise and over deliver.” That basically just means your suggested alternative deadline shouldn’t be too aggressive. You want to give yourself every opportunity to not only meet but exceed expectations.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that your alternative deadline will simply be accepted. Be prepared for this to kick off a negotiation process. Both parties may need to compromise a bit to find a solution that works for everyone.
Keep in mind that you might have to reprioritize some other items to make room for this one within the required time frame. Obviously, it has to make sense to do so. Should it happen, let the other party know that you’re going out of your way to meet their needs. This helps to create a feeling of camaraderie. If they know you’re willing to shift things around for them, they’re more likely to flex a bit on their end as well and they’ll be especially appreciative of whatever you can offer.
Whatever you do, don’t let yourself get talked into another unreasonable deadline.
5. Don’t renegotiate twice.
Rarely is it acceptable to renegotiate the same deadline twice. Heed the advice in steps 3 and 4 to ensure you don’t get stuck again. If it happens, the same rules apply as above. But this time, you absolutely must ensure you can and will meet the new deadline—no exceptions. Repeated renegotiation of a deadline indicates the task or project isn’t a priority and perhaps it should be reconsidered.
6. Don’t make excuses.
The key to success in all of this is honest, straightforward and timely communication. There’s no need to offer complicated excuses, place blame, or provide a litany of reasons for your renegotiation request. Keep the conversation simple and clearly define what you want/need to successfully resolve the situation. A concise explanation is often appreciated, but don’t go overboard. Most people just want to know the bottom line. The question of “why” is less important than figuring out next steps.
“I feel unchallenged at work. I keep looking for new things to do and new responsibilities to take on, but I’m having trouble. How do I get my superiors to better utilize me and my skills?”
It’s a great question because it shows that you want to contribute to your organization in a meaningful way and you have more to offer. But how do you make it happen?
First off, think of it this way: If you’re looking around trying to find more to do and having a rough go of it, your superiors will have the same difficulty. They’ve got other things on their plates so searching for ways to better utilize you is an easy task to put on the back burner.
Sadly, I find that a lot of people complain of being under utilized but they don’t really do much to fix the problem. They use it as a way of saying they’re undervalued and capable of more (if only others would recognize it!), but they’re unwilling to actually put in the effort to demonstrate that… Which makes me wonder if they really ARE capable of more, or if they just want to believe that. Some of these folks, in my humble opinion, would actually rather be bored and unchallenged because, hey, it’s easy and it gives them something to complain about.
Of course, I assume that my fabulous readers who have this question are amazingly talented and want desperately to find real, tangible ways of using the skills that are currently being overlooked and underutilized in the workplace.
So, the most important first step is this: You’ve got to take ownership of the problem. Don’t blame others for what’s going on and don’t expect others to figure out how to best use you. Sure, the situation may feel out of your control at the moment. But it’s time to wrap your arms around it and fix it. Here’s how…
Evaluate Your Current Performance
Before you even consider asking for more/different responsibilities, your first job is to make sure your current work is done to perfection. If you’re not rocking and rolling with your existing responsibilities, there’s no reason you should be looking for anything else. Put your concentration where it belongs first. Then, and only then, is it worthwhile exploring other opportunities.
What Do You Want?
As with most things, you won’t get what you want if you can’t clearly define it. Figure out the skills you have that could be better utilized in your position (or skills you’d like to hone) and brainstorm what that would really look like. Come up with specific projects or tasks that you’d like to be a part of and outline exactly what you could contribute and how you’d add value.
What Can Your Superiors Do?
Managers are funny. Sometimes, they just need you to tell them what to do (i.e., what projects to let you take on, what tasks to give you, etc.). The trick is that you have to be specific.
Too many people go to their superiors and simply say things like, “I’d like more responsibility,” or “I’d like to take on more challenging projects.” These are easy requests to hear and then ignore because you’re not presenting anything tangible or concrete. And they can come off sounding like empty complaints.
Ask for what you want and be specific. Be sure to share the reasons behind your request. Focus on the fact that you believe you can make a significant, positive contribution in these areas without negatively impacting your existing work. Don’t put too much emphasis on the fact that you’re trying to fill empty time or feel more challenged. Remember, it’s not about you; it’s about the organization. Your boss is more concerned with the impact you can have, not the “enjoyment” you’ll get out of the additional work.
Alternatively, if you can’t come up with the exact things you’d like to do, you can let your boss know that you have specific skills you’d like to better utilize in service of the organization and you’d like his/her advice on how to do that. This gives your superior(s) a chance to consider the various needs of the company and where your skills might better be used. Unfortunately, it creates a task for your already busy superiors and an easy one to set aside.
Lastly, consider taking on new tasks and responsibilities on your own. There are probably a lot of ways you can do more without getting prior “permission”. For example, look at the routines and processes you currently engage in throughout the day. Where is there room for improvement? Perhaps you can find a way to increase efficiency, reduce costs, or improve the quality of output.
Make it your “responsibility” to find new, innovative ways to make everyday activities more effective. You might have to get buy in from your superiors to implement your ideas, but use your skills to outline an improvement plan and clearly define the benefit. Doing this kind of thing increases your value to your boss, your team and the organization as a whole. Plus, if it’s a great idea, you might get to head up a big initiative.
I know a lot of you have this same problem (or have in the past) so please share your recommendations in the comments below. What have you done to better utilize your skills in the workplace?
Written by Chrissy Scivicque, February 18th, 2013 | 4 Comments »
Some of you aren’t going to like this article. I can hear you now:
“Chrissy, who cares that my desk looks like a tornado hit it? I can find everything I need and that’s all that matters.”
I’ve got a sobering newsflash, my friend. Brace yourself.
My response to that argument? Nope. Wrong. Not true. That’s not all that matters. Organization is as much about others as it is about you.
Specifically, it’s about how others see you.
Your organizational habits (or lack thereof) provide visible clues about who you are and what you bring to the table. People mentally associate organization with a whole host of other traits, including:
Here’s the rub: It’s not necessarily true. Organized people aren’t necessarily any more mature, competent, or intelligent than the next guy.
It’s not always accurate to say that this organized person is a better worker than that disorganized person, but that’s what our subconscious brain is telling us. That’s the perception.
And perception is reality.
If people perceive you as something, they treat you that way. They look for confirmation that you ARE that way. So this can work for you or against you in the workplace. It benefits the organized people and creates enormous unspoken obstacles for the disorganized ones.
Here’s what I mean:
Walking past your desk, the CEO of your company sees a clean surface, clearly labeled files, a neat stack of paperwork, an orderly system for managing tasks.
“Wow,” he thinks. ‘This person is clearly on top of it.”
In those 5 seconds, a perception was born.
Now, imagine it this way…
Walking past your desk, the CEO sees overwhelming piles of paper, post-it notes stuck to every surface, beanie babies perched on shelves, coffee cups tucked behind folders hidden behind photos stacked on top of books holding down a big ball of tangled cords.
“Wow,” he thinks. “That’s disgusting.”
Maybe he wonders how you find anything. Maybe he gives you the benefit of the doubt that YOU know your system. But then he wonders what happens when you’re out of the office. How do your co-workers find anything? Maybe he wonders if you take your job seriously, or if you’d rather be working at the beanie baby factory down the street. Maybe he thinks about doing something else with your office space…
I know it sounds like a stretch, but this is the world we live in. Impressions are made in seconds. We judge people by how they present themselves and, like it or not, your workspace and organizational habits are a part of that.
I’m sure some people will come back to me with this popular retort:
“If a cluttered desk indicates a cluttered mind, what does an empty desk say?”
So let me clarify: No one is saying you have to go to extremes. Just aim for visible order. You may be surprised to find that you’re actually more efficient when all that crap is out of the way.
Personally, I do in fact believe that good organizational habits tend to boost performance in the workplace, whether you clutter-bugs out there like to hear it or not. I don’t think it’s ALL about image.
But, to those people who rely on the old “I can find anything” motto as they sink behind the pile of rubble that was once a desk, let me say this: Please fix the issue for others, if not yourself. Their perceptions are impacting you and your career, and it’s totally within your control.
Written by Chrissy Scivicque, February 07th, 2013 | 6 Comments »
But not everyone can be so lucky (if you want to call it that). If you experience boredom at work, keep reading. This one’s for you.
Even if you love your job and you know it’s a good fit, there are some businesses/industries/positions that have natural cycles of activity. This means that there will be times when things are crazy busy and you’re totally engaged. And there will also be times when things slow down and you find yourself going kind of stir crazy. Here are some points to consider when those down time occur.
You might not like to hear this but you have more power than you think. Don’t wait for someone or something outside of you to fix this problem. Get creative if you must. Stop focusing on the circumstances and focus on yourself. What can YOU do to stay motivated and engaged? Look for opportunities. What isn’t working and how can you fix it? What’s working well and how can you do more of that? You’re in the driver’s seat here.
Keep a List
One trick I use (and have used for years) is to keep a list of little pet projects that aren’t urgent but would be “nice to do” at some point. Things that might land on this list include:
Create a procedures binder where I outline all of my tasks and how to do them.
Reorganize the filing system and purge old/out-of-date documents.
Clean out my junk drawer.
Explore a new software. (Personally, I’m hoping to dive into Evernote soon)
Clean out my hard drive.
Upgrade the look and feel of our sales presentations
When you find yourself bored, grab your list, select a project and get moving.
Seek New Challenges
Challenge is the key to staying engaged. Your brain wants to be used. Ask for new responsibilities. Take on projects and tasks that push you outside your comfort zone. Look for growth opportunities, even when you’re busy. Don’t wait for boredom to set in. When it does, the opportunities may no longer be available.
Find a Friend
A recent Gallup study indicates that having high quality relationships at work increases long-term job satisfaction. No surprise there! While having a friend at work won’t necessarily offset the feeling of boredom, it will make it less frustrating. You’ll have a better overall outlook and time at work will be more enjoyable, regardless of what you’re doing.
Get Additional Training
A great way to use downtime is to learn some new skills. Online training programs make it easy to do right from your desk. Remember, the new skills you learn are making you a more competitive member of the workforce. You can take these skills with you and use them anywhere. So, while you’re improving your abilities and making yourself more valuable in your current position, you’re also improving your future opportunities for career growth and success. A double whammy!
Examine the Cause
Perhaps you’re not bored because you lack work. Maybe you’re bored because the work you have doesn’t engage you or leverage your skills. This is a different situation altogether. If you have plenty to do and you’re still feeling disengaged, you have some figuring out to do.
Boredom is a sign that you’re not using your true talents. What kind of work makes you feel “in the flow”? That’s your calling. You may have lots of things that engage you. If so, that’s great! Explore ways to align your career with these things. It might be possible right where you are. But you might need to consider moving on.
Lastly, let me just say this: We all have certain tasks that bore us but are a required part of the job. I’d say about 20% of my time is spent doing things I’d rather not do but have to in order to be successful in my work. The other 80% of the time is spent doing fun, engaging things that help me feel fulfilled. That’s a pretty awesome ratio. I’ve worked with people who are happy to have it the other way around. They’ll put up with 80% boredom if they can have 20% rock-your-socks-off great work they love. Like anything, there’s a tradeoff. Keep your expectations realistic.