Be More Effective – Week 16: Take Time Management to the Next Level

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Do you know how you spend your time through the week? Do you really know? If I would ask you, could you tell me how much of your time you have spent on each of the different topics you care about?

Most people have a general guesstimate but don’t know for sure. Most people are also dead wrong with their guesses.

If you don’t track your time you cannot manage it.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” – Peter Drucker

If you want to become more proactive and deliberate with how you spend your time and attention, you need to be intentional about it. You need to decide what your time should be spent on, measure how you actually spend time, and then take corrective action if those two measures don’t align.

Decide how you should spend your time. Track how you actually spend it. Adjust where needed. Rinse and repeat.

It’s actually fairly easy to be more intentional about our time:

1. Make a plan. The first step to more intentional time control is to decide how you should spend your time. What are the different categories that you care about, and what percentage of time should you spend on each? For example, some of my categories are ‘people management’, ‘planning’, ‘execution’, ‘hiring’, and so on.

2. Measure your actual time allocation. Once you have a plan, you need to gather data. Measure how you actually spend your time. You can do this in a dedicated time log or use categories in a calendar that you already use. It requires almost zero effort to categorize meetings that are already on your calendar. Same for times that you had already blocked to focus on your priorities. Now all you need to do is to fill in the time in between, for example when you caught up on email. I would guess for a typical knowledge worker 80% of your time is already on your calendar anyway. Take an inventory for everything, including the times when you procrastinate, otherwise your time log is useless.

3. Don’t stop at measuring. Block time for the things that are important for you. When you see that the times that are scheduled by others run out of boundaries, block some work time off before others block the time for you.

4. Check daily and adjust as you go. Do a quick visual check every day. Look more thoroughly back and forward once a week. Adjust as you need it. If you use color coding for your categories, it will be easy to get a good sense with just a quick glance.
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5. Report out and hold yourself accountable. Once a month run a report. If you use Outlook all you need to do is to export your calendar into a CSV file and then copy the data into Excel. Below is a link to a template that you can use to run some reports and graphical analysis on your raw data. Track your time allocation over time. Are you trending in the right direction?
Time allocation TEMPLATE
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6. Update your categories. Don’t be stuck with the categories you picked a while ago. Adjust what you track as your priorities change. Update your categories as you want to drive new and different behaviors. You should do this at least once a quarter. For example I recently added the category ‘deep work’ when I realized that I got drawn into too many tactical directions.

Here are some pointers that can help you find the right categories:

  • Your job description
  • What you need to improve and your growth opportunities
  • What you are passionate about
  • How your mentors or role models think about their time

Time management is actually fun! It takes only little energy if you align it with the tools you already use and it will teach you a lot about how you spend your days and energy.

The key is to pick categories that make sense for the outcomes that you want to achieve. Pick categories that will teach you interesting insights about your days and your subconscious preferences. My categories won’t work for you, you need to find your own!

Be More Effective – Week 18: Declare War on Procrastination and Wasted Time

Did you check Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn updates today? Did you play a game on your phone? For how long? Did you wonder where the time went? Did you feel better and more satisfied afterwards or did it leave a little sour taste in your mouth?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s ok to use social media and play games. As long as you do it deliberately. In martial arts we learn that the key to everything is to make conscious decisions, take deliberate action and be aware of what’s going on.

Make conscious decisions, take deliberate action and be aware of the time you spend.

If you feel like playing a game, do so for all means. But decide before, how long you want to play and be deliberate as to what else you will not do in order to play that game. Make a conscious decision to not go in the yard to smell flowers because you want to play that game for 30 mins.

Do not just do those things so that you don’t have to tackle a chore you didn’t want to do.

Years ago, Uli and I would watch TV in the evenings. We would sit down, hop across channels, watch shows that we only halfway liked and endured commercials. Since we rarely found something that was truly satisfying we kept looking for much of the evening and went to bed way to late, only to be groggy and cranky the next morning. We don’t have cable anymore. On weekends we often watch one movie with our kids (one for the weekend) and have a lot of fun doing so. Otherwise the screen stays off.

Same for social media. A few years ago, I used to spend a lot of time on Facebook feeds or news outlets (the real ones, not all the made-up fake news). I hardly ever got satisfied and I almost never felt better. Now I get up in the morning, take a shower and go to work right away. As a result, I come home to my kids a little earlier in the evening. I don’t miss anything, but gain a lot. I do check Facebook on Saturday mornings, but I do it deliberately (I might even stop that, since the news feed gets worse every time).

Decide how you want to spend your time. Set a limit. Track the limit. Don’t just do it to have an excuse to be lazy. If you want to be lazy, make it deliberately and proudly.

In the beginning it can help to set yourself screen time limits. Monitor how you do spend time and decide what it should be. Write it down. Then start controlling your time. Turn of the screen. Cancel your cable subscription.

Only do what gives you real longterm pleasure – it’s likely not your screen.

However, please do get me right. If you love Facebook, a game, a TV show and get pleasure and satisfaction from it every time you watch it, please do so. Likewise procrastination doesn’t only come in the form of digital media. You might as well procrastinate fiddling around in the house because you don’t want to get yourself to the office work. Doing dishes has so much more appeal during tax season than in the months after you turned in your taxes.

Control your procrastinations. Do them deliberately (or not at all).

Be More Effective – Week 15: Take Control of YOUR Priorities

business-3190209_1920There are many things that we should or could do. All of them will keep us busy. Few of them will have lasting impact and move us forward.

Focus on the things that matter! Prioritize what needs to get done. Plan your priorities and block time for them.

Write down YOUR priorities and what YOU need to achieve. Really write it down and make a purposeful commitment to yourself. Revisit and update that list every day. It’s a great preparation for the day while you sip your morning coffee.

Pick the 3 to 4 things that you want to achieve in the week and the 1 or 2 things that you will get down for the day. Don’t pick more, focus on what really needs to get done this week and today. Be realistic as to what you actually can get done, given the unplanned distractions that will pull on your attention and time as the day progresses.

As you write down your priorities, make sure to follow these four rules:

1. Be specific. Don’t write down ‘get more organized’, be specific and write down ‘compile a list of the things I need to fix in my backyard’.

2. Make it achievable. Don’t write down ‘declutter the house’. It will probably take a while to achieve that end goal. Be specific about the step you want to achieve today or this week, for example ‘clean up the kitchen’.

3. Block time. If you don’t block time on you calendar, other supposedly urgent things will come along and distract you. With that, your priorities will only be good intentions and when you look back at the end of the week you will be utterly frustrated. Defend that blocked time against other ‘important’ things that try to push over it.

4. Don’t forget to add time for your values. With all the things we HAVE to do, we often forget to take time for the things we WANT to do. Block time for the things that are important to you and that help you live to your values. Add them to your weekly and daily priorities. They are just as much, if not more important than everything else.

Be More Effective – Week 14: Don’t Waste your Commute

We spend many hours every week at work. For most office workers it’s 40-60 hours. Side note: folks who tell you they work more are most likely just showing off or they add a lot of inefficient time to their workdays. That is a huge chunk of our lives. We better make it count!

Step one is to make your commute count. I don’t know for you, but for me that’s another 2-3 hours on top of my work day. Every day.

Make your commute count. Triage your email, get on top of your calendar. Listen to a good audio book or to NPR. Call your parents at least once a week.

If you ride your bike to work, you can skip ahead to the next tip. You already make your commute count – you do something good for your health.

Kudos if you use the train and bus and board it early enough to secure a seat. Instead of checking Facebook, get your laptop and do some email triage. That takes time but usually doesn’t require too much deep focus. You might as well get it done before you even enter the office. Sort your calendar, get ahead of things. Know what’s coming and be aware of the fires that await you as soon as you approach your desk.

If you need to drive yourself (like I do), listen to a good audiobook. Learn something new while your mind is still fresh, empty and ready to take something in, instead of being distracted by a hundred things shouting for your attention. Don’t listen to the local radio station or the comedy show. Check out NPR podcasts or pick a good audio book.

If you don’t want to listen to a book, call your parents. They will appreciate it and years down the road you will be glad you did take the time to call them. Make it a point to do this at least once a week. Call them while you commute so you don’t have any excuse to not do it.

Reflection: Build and Establish Good Habits

joy-2483926_1920Heads-up – this is going to be a long post, but it is crucial for making our changes stick. Bear with me and take your time to read it.

We are now 14 weeks into building healthier habits for a more productive and balanced life. That means somewhere between 5 to 10 new habit changes already, depending on which ones and how many you decided to pick up.

Before we move on to a whole new area (being more efficient at your work), let’s talk a little bit about how we make all those habits stick.

How do we make them stick?

How can we avoid to flip-flop from new habit to new habit every week and bouncing back to bad behaviours as soon as we take our eyes off a recent habit change?

In the past I’ve tried to follow the rule that you have to keep a habit for 30 days to make it stick, but to be honest more often than not this didn’t work for me. More recently I came across two books that provide good frameworks that do actually work (at least for me).

  • “Mini Habits”, Stephen Guise – Simple to read book that focuses on making habits so small that you cannot possibly fail to just do them.
  • “Atomic Habits”, James Clear – A more scientific exploration of the topic with many suggestions on how to make habits stick.

The following is a summary of the rules I found most effective from those books. Read the books for more suggestions as well as the science behind them.

 1 – One small change at a time

Don’t boil the ocean! You will get frustrated and will give up.

Don’t try to change more than one behavior or add more than one habit at a time. Don’t pick habits that reflect your end goal, but rather focus on the next immediate step that will get you there.

Don’t boil the ocean. Pick one habit at a time. Make your habit changes too small to fail.

Instead pick one habit per week and focus on it. Focus on only that habit until you reliably repeat it. Then you can add a new habit to your list. If you notice that you stopped doing the previous change, go back and add that habit back again.

Make your habit change small. Instead of trying to turn end goals into a habit, focus on the immediate next step. For example, instead of saying “I will lose 10 pounds”, make it a habit to drink a refreshing glass of water every time you want to grab your habitual can of soda.

Make your habit changes small, make them easy. Make them too small to fail.

Small changes add up. Rather than making a heroic effort and keeping it for two weeks, make incremental 1% changes and keep going at them for the rest of your life. Nothing beats the impact of consistency (the “Compounding effect of 1% changes.”, James Clear).

2 – Don’t break your streak

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” – Peter Drucker

Once a new habit is truly a habit you will do it naturally. Until then you need to ‘manage’ yourself to stick to it. Usually the best way to do that is to track and keep a log that holds you accountable.

Track of your progress to keep you going. Don’t break your streak. Never fail twice.

Tracking your progress helps to keep you motivated as you see the rewarding days, when you kept to your habit, adding up. It also serves to hold you accountable because once you have a chain of successful days, you don’t want to break the streak.

How you track your habit doesn’t matter as long as you do it. Find the way that works best for you: a wall calendar that you tick off, your personal journal, a jar of marbles that you fill up every time you did a specific habit, an app on your phone that you always have with you. Personally I like to use both a wall calendar for a big longterm habit that I’m chasing, as well as an iPhone app (Streaks) to keep track of my progress on the small changes throughout the day.

Try your best to not break a streak. It is motivational to see how you add day after day to your list of little wins. Try to not drop the ball, work hard to not break the streak.

Having that said, life will happen. Every now and then something will come in the way of your habit. That is a crucial point in your habit-forming. One of two things will happen: 1) you broke your streak and will now have a much lower bar to dropping the habit again the next day or 2) you get right back to your habit the next day. To be honest, the first response is much more likely and it dooms you for failure on your desired longterm changes. The biggest risk to a habit is not the start but keeping to go.

To prevent you from dropping your habit once you face the first obstacle, make it a point to never fail twice in a row. It’s ok to fail every now and again. But NEVER fail twice in a row to do your habit.

As a side note for habit tracking apps: I like the iOS Streak app which lets me track six habits at a time. If I successfully did a habit for six weeks, it most likely sticks and I can replace it with a new one. If it doesn’t stick yet, I will wait a little longer before I take on the next habit. Tracking six habits at a time is a reasonable balance between ambition and feasibility.

3 – Make it automatic

Your will power drains through the day. Have a plan. Make your habits a reflex.

We all start our days with the best intentions. We stick to our priorities through the morning and then the curve balls start hitting us. We get tired, we get worn out. We come home exhausted, drop in front of the TV, have a couple of drinks. Then we go to bed, slightly frustrated about ourselves and have the best intentions to be more disciplined the next day. The next day won’t be any different though.

Have a plan. Make good habits easy and bad habits difficult. Make your habit a reflex. Identify trigger points.

The problem is that we cannot trust ourselves as we get more and more tired throughout the day and our willpower gets depleted by the obstacles, challenges and decisions we are facing.

We need our fresh mind to make the right decisions for us. We need your well rested brain, with its full reservoir of will power and sight of the right priorities to make the decisions for us, before the tired brain can kick in and take over.

Make a proactive plan of ‘if, then’ decisions. You will be tired in the evening when you come home. Make a plan what you will do when you want to drop in front of the TV (“when I want to grab the TV remote, I will rather pick up a cup of tea and the book I started reading”). Make the plan while you still have your priorities straight, not when you’re tired. That way you will not need to decide when you’re tired, you will only need to execute.

Identifying and setting triggers for your habits is an additional technique that you can use. Put your gym bag in front of your door so that you have to pick it up on your way to work. Make fruit and veggies visibly available in your house and make candy hard to reach. Put away the remote and place a book in its place. Get the TV out of your bedroom, set nighttime timers that switch off your devices and lights.

You can also add a new habit to something that you already do habitually (“when I grab my morning coffee I will do 10 push-ups”). It’s an easy way to trigger a new good behavior through a behavior that is already ingrained in your daily life.

Make your habit a reflex, so you no longer need to make a conscious decision. Make good habits easy and bad habits difficult to start.

4 – Work backwards from who you want to be

“Identity is stronger than goals. Your believes of yourself drive your behavior.” – James Clear

So far we talked about how you can make very specific behaviors stick. It’s a very narrow approach and requires will power. After all, you want to change something AGAINST what you perceive as your natural preferences.

To take this to the next level, you need to change your natural preferences. You need to change who you think you are and what preferences that person has. You need to change your image of yourself.

Decide what type of person you are and then make the decisions such a person would make.

However, don’t get stuck at dreaming about what type of person you would wish to be. Decide what type of person you are.

Are you a healthy person? Are you a person who doesn’t drink alcohol? Are you a person that exercises every day? Are you a person that spends quality time with his kids and family every day? Are you a person that creates a piece of art every day? Are you a person who helps someone every day?

Decide who you ARE. Then make the decisions such a person will make.

Are you a person who doesn’t drink alcohol? Well, then it’s easy, you don’t need to buy beer anymore and you don’t need to mull over whether you should have a drink at the work party or not. You’re a person that doesn’t drink alcohol. Period.

Many years ago I decided that I never ever want to drive after having had a drink anymore (I neverhad an accident or issue up to then, but I also didn’t want to take the risk anymore). I didn’t know back then, but I decided to not be a person who drives after they had a drink. And I never once did since then, nor did I miss it.

For in the moment decisions, it doesn’t matter as much what longterm goals you have or what person you would wish to become when you grow up. What matters is what person you decided that you are already and what decisions such a person makes.

Decide what person you are TODAY and make the decisions such a person would make.

Healthy Habits – Week 13: End Your Day With a Mindfulness Exercise

These days, almost every day is stressful. We are stressed at work, with our kids, our bills, you name it. And worst, it doesn’t stop anymore. We’re always connected, we take work home and feel guilty if we’re not available 24/7.

As a result, we cannot turn off our minds and worries at night. We subsequently don’t sleep well, don’t get enough rest and are starting the next day on the wrong foot and even more tired. And the spiral goes further down.

Wind down at night. Do a mindfulness exercise. Meditate, do Yoga or Tai Chi. Have nice dinner conversations with loved ones. Leave it there.

Break that spiral by consciously winding down at night. Specifically, try to do a mindfulness exercise at night before going to bed.

Do some meditation before you go to sleep. There are plenty of phone and Alexa apps that will guide you, if you don’t have experience meditating. Pick you favorite.

If meditation is not your cup of tea, do some Yoga, practice Tai Chi, stretch gently, take a bath with some candles, snuggle with your dog (or cat) or just have a relaxed dinner table conversation with loved ones.

Be grateful for the day. Be grateful for friends and families. Be grateful for the experiences of the day and the ones that still lay ahead for the days coming. Great ones, and challenging ones, experiences are what makes our lives interesting and worthwhile.

Pick whatever works for you and do it. When you’re home, be home. Wind down, be mindful.

And most important: don’t go back to your work after a mindful break and before you sleep. Close your day and keep it closed. You don’t want to stay awake all night and think about the things that ‘keep you awake’, you want to be relaxed and marvel about the connections and experiences you had.

Healthy Habits – Week 12: Go to the Gym

dumbbells-2465478_1920We started with daily push-ups in week 2 and freed some extra time in the morning by skipping procrastinations in week 3.

How about we put that time to use by going to the gym in the morning at least a couple of times a week. Don’t decide in the moment though, plan ahead of time what those days will be and block the time in your calendar. Get you gym bag ready to grab the evening before.

Make an appointment for your health. Go to the gym in the morning.

It doesn’t matter whether you go for strength, cardio or flexibility. Weights, running or Yoga are all good. Of course it’s best if you cycle through all of them and create a balanced portfolio of workouts. You can get to that over time though, starting with one type of exercise and then adding more variety as you advance.

However the most important thing is that you block some real time for yourself and your health. Make an appointment with yourself to go to the gym, individually or by joining a class. See what works best for you but make your health a priority.