The Productivity Paradox: Short Term or Long Term Effect?

March 15, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot lately on how to recover time I’ve spent in tasks not directly associated with what I consider productive, i.e. email, admin stuff, and doing everything else but those tasks that will help me achieve my goals. Why do I do those things, you might ask, and I reply that is because sometimes you just can’t say no. In a corporate environment, sometimes (some of you may argue that’s ‘all the time’) you get pulled out of your daily activities and asked to do something unplanned, like help out the sale manager with a powerpoint presentation, interview a new candidate for that admin position or even attend a meeting called last minute by your boss. As much as you hate it, sometimes you just have to adapt to the situation and juggle things around, add another monkey to your back and hope it doesn’t brake your neck. 

But I digress… what I’ve been focusing on for the past few posts is on how you can use tools you already have at your disposal (like MS Outlook for most corporate users) to become more effective and productive. The use of such tools, however, can be seen as a short-tem fix instead of a long-term effect. If you become better at managing your schedule, let’s say, will that help you gain back time you have wasted up until now and use now the time you’ll be saving in more productive tasks? Or is the time you have already wasted considered “sunk time” and will never be recovered?How productive are you?

On a recent blog post Jason Cohen, from Smart Bear Software, tackled this issue and argued that if you become 1% more productive each day you won’t necessarily be able to add all this productivity up and claim at the end of the month that you’ve now achieved 30% more productivity (the claim of 1% translating into cummulative productivity was made by Alfred Lin, Zappos COO, in his blog post). This is an interesting concept, because a lot of people start using GTD and similar methods to become more productive and it is comong that they end up not implementing the full method but are still satisfied because they feel they are now a bit more productive each day. So, in the end, if you are only a bit more productive can you claim an overall big productivity improvement?

What I will argue is that whatever the correct answer to this question, it is missing the point. The important thing is not to decide whether you can become 1% more productive each day, but is your productivity being applied to achieve your goals? Before you attempt to increase your productivity, first ask yourself: do you have a short-term or a long-term goal?

Short-term productivity is exactly that, the 1% each day, the ability of now to clean up your inbox in 30 mins instead of 45 mins, the extra 5 mins you gained because you are now running effective meetings, and the satisfaction that your day is now being spent on things that matter. 

Long-term productivity is the focus on your overall goals, how you spend your time, and what do you need to change in your daily habits that will let you achieve your objectives in the amount of time you have available. We all have goals and work hard to accomplish what we set forth but are we being realistic? Are we startegizing and planning what our priorities will be? Do we even know how much time we need to spend on specific tasks and whether those tasks will get us to where we want?

Jason, again, touched upon a very powerful first step for anyone interested in the long-term productivity plan. He talked about assessing your time and noting how you are spending your time during the day and week. Peter Drucker, in his book “The Effective Executive” spent the majority of his book discussing time management because it is such an important concept to tackle if you want to become more effective. Drucker suggested “know thy time” as a precursor to any adjustment you will have to make to your daily routine. This simple yet powerful principle is essential to help you better understand how you are spending your efforts. Take notes of how you are spending your time, then go back and ask yourself:

  1. What tasks are taking most of my time during the day and week?
  2. Which tasks should I be working on that will lead me to accomplish my goals?
  3. Are those tasks in my first list matching the ones in my second list?

Obvious, but not necessarily easy. Most of your time should be spent on those tasks that are directly associated with your goals, and if you are not spending most of your time on those, than no matter how productive you become every day (be it 1%, 5% or 10%!) the amount of productivity increased won’t matter if you are not focusing on what’s important.

Getting stuff done isn’t the goal. Getting the RIGHT stuff done, is.

Once you’ve identified what are the right tasks, the ones where you should spend more of your time then you can start thinking about ways to become more productive. This is long-term planning. If you always know how to spend your time, then when those unplanned events happen, you won’t be thrown off balance trying to recover your time.

Don’t focus on small or big improvements. Decide what you need to improve first.

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Better Time Management with Smart Calendars

March 12, 2009

Use your calendar to your advantage

Smart calendar done right

Using calendar the smart way

I’ve noticed throughout the years that if something is not on my task list it won’t get done. Yes, I may remember the task from time to time and I write it down in a yellow sticky note, but getting it into my task list (be it in Outlook where I centralize everything, or in a paper notebook that I used back in the day) triggers some type of psychological commitment that is not the case otherwise. And besides, once is in my task list (I use MS Outlook to manage my tasks, see my post on Task Management with Outlook), I can then prioritize and classify accordingly.

But the other side of getting stuff done and being effective at managing your time has to do with meetings.  Seth Godin says there are three types of meetings: 

  • Information: designed to inform
  • Discussion: where the leader wants feedback
  • Permission: where the other side has the power to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’

 

Although I think he simplified a bit (I can think of at least 3 other types that are not covered there, but that’s a post for another time), I get his point. Unless you know what the meeting if for, you won’t be prepared for it, and you won’t have a very productive meeting. Unproductive meetings are a drag on your time and therefore on your ability to be a better manager. The subject of running effective meetings has been discussed in several other blogs so I’ll focus at the narrower topic I outlined in the beginning, which is managing your time via smart use of your calendar.

 

The Five Rules of Effective Meeting Scheduling

For those of us networked and connected to a calendar system such as MS Outlook, we have the advantage of being able to share our calendars with the rest of the company. That is also, of course, a drawback in some cases because everyone with access to your calendar can now see when you are available and when you are out playing golf, I mean, when you are in an important meeting.

But seriously, I think that the networked calendar has more advantages than disadvantages if you know how to use it. Try following these simple rules:

 

1.       Make your calendar available to your direct reports and your peers: companies differ on their network policies and who has access to what, so you may not need to do this but just in case your company locks down access to other people’s calendar you should proactively let your direct reports (those who work for you) and your peers see your schedule. This will help you in two ways. For one, your staff can now see your availability and schedule necessary meetings directly into your calendar without having to keep asking you, which saves you time once you let them know of your particular preferences (i.e. don’t schedule meetings in the morning, or whether you prefer to leave at least 1 hour after lunch before any meeting, etc.) and secondly, if your peers have access to your calendar, you can also avoid calls and emails back and forth asking “hey, are you available at 2pm tomorrow to discuss Project X? If not, give me a couple of days and times….”. Let them see your availability and let them Mischedule the meeting accordingly. This is a GREAT time saver.

In order to give other people access to your calendar in outlook, do the following (Outlook 2003 and 2007):

  • Go to “tools – options”
  • Click on “Calendar Options”
  • Click on “Resource Scheduling”
  • Click on “Set Permissions”
  • Click on the “Permissions” tab
  • Click on the “Add” button, the contacts list will open upAdding Permissions to Your Calendar
  • Select the person you’d like to add to your permissions list and select from the drop down list of ‘Permission Level’ the type of role that user will have. As you click each role, you will see different options below being checked off. You can also customize yourself the role if the default ones don’t fit. For people to be able to view your calendar items they need to have “read items” checked. If you want to give people the ability to create calendar items (meetings) directly into your calendar, they also need “create items”. I usually only let my staff with “read” permission because I want them to send me a meeting invitation before they schedule something directly to my calendar. 

2.       Don’t simply ask people to come to a meeting by calling or emailing, send them a meeting invitation: Most calendar programs have this option, which emails the person with a meeting request that they need to reply to with “yes”, “no” or “propose another time” (those are the standard options in MS Outlook). This way you ensure they accept the meeting (which will automatically add it to their own calendars), and you can track who responded (I know this works well in Outlook but not sure in other platforms).

3.       Use the body of the ‘meeting request’ invite to add agenda items, links to documents, and other notes so that people can be prepared prior to the meeting.

4.       In your calendar, ensure you have some time blocked prior and after the meeting: This may vary depending on the type of meeting, but you may have to prepare or read the agenda or even collect information. As soon as you invite or accept a meeting invitation, decide whether you need some extra 15 minutes (or more) to prepare. The more prepared you are, the more productive your meeting will be especially if you’re running the show. Block that time prior to the meeting in your calendar as if it was another meeting adjacent to it. The same applies for the ‘after meeting’ time… if you were taking notes and have to prepare meeting minutes or if you know the meeting will give you a bunch of action items, you should allocate some time right after the meeting to transcribe your notes or assign tasks.

5.       Label the meeting appropriately in your calendar: MS Outlook users have some nice options here that few people bother to configure, which is a mistake. Lotus notes users can do the same thing and I bet other platforms have similar functions. In MS Outlook 2003 and 2007 you can color code your calendar items so that you can visually identify types of meetings scheduled throughout your week or month. I like this feature because when planning my week I can easily spot a day in which I have several conference calls and may want to schedule an extra call at another day (we all need a break from conference calls, right?) or vice versa. And here’s where I think you need to go a bit deeper than what Seth Godin recommended as types of meetings, because you will want to clearly see stuff such as:

a.       Off site meetings: for these you will need to allocate travel time before and after the meeting (going to and coming back to the office).

b.      Meetings that involve a conference room or other facility: my company has a video conferencing room, so I know that if have a meeting that will use that room I need to be 10 minutes early to ensure the system is turned on and working, so I like to see these types of meetings with a different color.

c.       Meetings involving your boss: you want to continue climbing the corporate ladder and so you should know not to arrive late at these and ensure you are prepared.

d.      Project specific meetings: you could have a category for specific project types (webinars, advertising campaigns, creative brainstorming, etc.) if those represent different preparations, time, or energy level required.

Want to start labeling your meetings? If using MS Outlook 2003…

a) Open your calendar

b) Right-click on any meeting and in the contextual menu that opens up click on “Label”.

Labeling meetings in MS Outlook 2003

Labeling meetings in MS Outlook 2003

c) You’ll see the default labels with colors showing up. At the very bottom of the labels list, there’s an “Edit Labels…” option.

d) Click there and a window will pop up showing all labels and allowing you to edit each entry.


If using MS Outlook 2007, you are lucky! In Outlook 2007 they got smarter and merged the labels from the Calendar with the categories from the Tasks. This means you can now share the same categories between meetings and tasks. Simply…

a)Open the calendar

b) Right click on a meeting

Creating meeting categories in Outlook 2007

Creating meeting categories in Outlook 2007

c)Select the “Categorize” option

d) A list will show up and you can click on “All Categories” which will bring up a window with all categories, colors, and options to add or modify existing categories.

6.       Bonus rule! When you get an email asking for you to go to a meeting (someone who clearly doesn’t know how to use the meeting invitation feature), simply click on that email and drag it to your Calendar icon (works in MS Outlook 2003 / 2007) and voila! A new meeting window will open with that email’s info in the body of the appointment details. Right after you do this, delete the email.

 

 

Know What Your Meeting is About

Labeling or categorizing your meetings can help tremendously in managing your time effectively. The types of categories will depend on the types of projects you’re involved in, the energy required in each type of meeting, and basically what you think will make sense. Start with a couple and you’ll see really quickly if you need more. My meeting types are:

  • Off site meeting: I like to know if the meeting will require me to drive to it, so I can plan accordingly and not schedule something right after it
  • On site meeting: for regular meetings held with my staff or in / around my office
  • Conference call / video conference meeting: for meetings that will require some setup and more preparation
  • Travel required: this means air travel and I use this to allocate my time going to and from the airport as well as time that I’m on the plane (this way no one will schedule a meeting for me while I’m 10,000 feet in the air and wonder why I didn’t show up)
  • Webinar: I have to personally oversee the setup of webinars we conduct so I need to tag these meetings accordingly
  • Work time: for certain projects, tasks and even working meetings with my staff I like to block some time to ensure we’ll get to it, so I created a category for “work time”.
  • Personal: going to the doctor, picking my son up from daycare and other chores that are not work related

Be smart at scheduling meetings and use your calendar to your advantage.

If you’re looking for some more tips (especially MS Outlook users) on meeting scheduling and best practices, check out this blog: http://www.theproductivitypro.com/blog/?cat=23

Of course, if you still have too many meeting to manage and that is what you think is killing your productivity, then you may want to read this interesting blog from Lifehack about killing your meetings

 

Enjoy life!


Effective Manager Defined

February 14, 2009

From time to time I go back to some business books I’ve read that had big influences in my career, one of which is “The One Minute Manager”, by Ken Blanchard. There’s a specific passage I think is a great definition of effective managers, it reads:

Effective managers manage themselves and the people they work with so that both the organization and the people profit from their presence.

This is a simple but powerful thought. How are you making use of your time? How are you making use of your team’s time? Are the tasks you and your team working on going to directly affect the company’s ability to compete in the marketplace?  Are the marketing campaigns you are planning or have planned going to directly influence sales? What are the key items in your agenda as a marketer that can have a direct impact in the company’s bottom line? 

Food for thought.



Outlook Productivity Tips

February 12, 2009

How to use MS Outlook to become more productive

Most people have MS outlook as their business email client, but very few really know how to take full advantage of all the options Outlook offers. MS Outlook is also a great productivity tool when used correctly, and so I decided to share some productivity tips for those using this program. You will realize that the more you use it, the more you will like it. Below are some of the main options you should know exist in Outlook, I will cover some more specifics about using Tasks and time management tips on another post. I hope at least one of these tips can help you get more from Outlook.Outlook Productivity

1.       Turn emails into appointments: we all get emails asking us to schedule a meeting or asking us to participate in one. The easiest way to ensure you won’t forget to add the meeting to your calendar and at the same time get all the detailed information that came in the email right there when you need it is to transform the email itself in the outlook calendar item. Simply click on the email message, and drag it to the calendar icon on the left panel. Pronto! An outlook calendar item will open up on the window and the body will contain the same text as the email had. When you’re ready for the meeting, simply open the calendar item and check the content in the body.

 

2.       Turn emails into tasks: outlook is a great task management tool if you know how to use it. There are several ways in which you can flag emails with different colors and priorities, but I don’t like to keep them in my inbox (time management and productivity gurus all agree that you should try to empty your inbox, but this is another discussion) and so I simply drag the email to the task icon on the left panel and a task item will pop up containing in the body the whole of your email! Is that simple… now for those emails that require an action or follow-up, simply drag them to create a new task.

3.       Create tasks quickly: on the phone with the boss and he assigns a new project to you? In a meeting with your staff and want to ensure you follow-up on the activities you just delegated? Simply press CTRL+SHIFT+K. A new task window will open up waiting for your input.

4.       Create custom views to find emails quickly: let’s say you want to see all emails in your inbox that were sent by a particular person. You can quickly sort your emails by sender when you click the ‘from’ column at the top of your inbox screen but then the emails are not ordered by date anymore. If you need to see all emails sent by a particular person and still keep them sorted by date, you should create a custom view. This is an awesome way to quickly find messages from different people while still keeping the sorting by date active. Go to “view”, select “current view” and then select “define views”. Click “new” and type in a new name for this view (e.g. Messages from John). Leave ‘type of view’ as table and hit OK. On the next screen click on the “filter” button and in the filter dialog box click on the “from” button and select the person’s name from the contact list.  Hit OK and exit back to your inbox. This new view will be listed under the “View” menu, “Current View”. When you click on the new view it will be applied to your inbox and you can then easily locate the message(s) from that person. If you are like me and have a ton of messages sitting in your inbox, this is the quickest way to find a message or a message thread, create multiple views and save some time finding emails.

5.       Use favorite folders for quick access: most people I know end up creating multiple folders in order to archive messages and discussions relating to a particular project or subject. Eventually you end up with a lengthy tree structure with subfolders as well. You, however, are likely to be working more frequently with only a couple folders and have to keep browsing your folder tree searching for them. Well, stop that! Right click on that folder(s) you use most and select “Add to Favorites folder”. Now that folder will show up at the top of the left panel, easily accessible any time you want.

6.       Find emails quickly alternate method: if you don’t like the idea of creating custom views to find messages in your inbox, you have an alternate method that is very powerful; you can create “Search Folders”. Go to “File”, select “new” and the “search folder” option. The dialog window that pops up will have standard options like unread mail, mail from someone, etc. Once you customize the search folder, it will show up right next to “unread mail” and “sent items” that usually show up at the top of the left panel. You can create several search folders and when you need to find specific emails (e.g. all messages flagged high priority or all messages sent to a specific distribution list, etc.) you simply click on that search folder.

7.       Disable the reading pane: the reading pane can be customized to show up at the bottom of the screen or the right. I liked the reading pane but it always bothered me for the space it used up even when I resized it… so I decided to work smarter and remove it completely. What I do instead is I selected my “view” option (under “view” menu, “current view”) to be “messages with auto-preview”. This way messages I haven’t read show up with a summary right below them. I can easily scan incoming messages and decide if I need to open them right at that moment. And messages I have read don’t display the summary anymore so it gives me a quick visual representation of read and unread messages. It took me a while to get used to this view but it helped me so much that is now my standard view for Outlook.

8.       Group messages by conversation: this is a big shift if you are used to simply listing messages by their received date because it changes the way messages are displayed, but helps a lot when there are emails going back and forth about a specific subject that you need to keep track of. In addition to my previous suggestion of disabling the reading pane and using the ‘messages with auto-preview’ option, I went to “View – current view – customize current view” menu and set the “Group by” to be “Conversation (ascending)”. By doing this, all messages in my inbox are grouped by conversation (meaning similar subjects), allowing me to see all threads related to a particular subject grouped together on the screen. When I’m copied in messages that go back and forth between other people in my company, I can see the whole discussion without having to search for messages and decide whether someone has already replied to the last email or not. Very easy and fast way to keep track of conversations about the same subject.

9.       Color code important emails: need to respond to your boss’ emails before you do anything else? Want to ensure that email about the bonus plan doesn’t get lost among all your other messages? Use color! Go to “View”, choose “Current View”, and select “customize current view”. Click on the “automatic formatting” button on the window that pops-up and click on “add” button. Type in a name for the new formatting rule (e.g. Messages from Charlie) and click on the Font button to choose a different font size, type, or color then click on Condition and select the criteria you want (e.g. if you want all of Charlie’s messages to appear in bold red, click the “from” button and choose him from the contact list, then in the Formatting option select bold red). If you want all your unread emails to appear blue instead of the default black bold, that’s where you can change it. Play around and choose wisely. Colorful messages help you distinguish them from all others, but use it sparingly otherwise the carnival of colors will only confuse you.

10.   Create new emails without your mouse: this is a quick and easy one. Instead of clicking on the “new” icon at the top, just press CTRL+N to create a new email message. It saves you a few seconds, but at the end of the day those seconds add up!

Stay tuned for additional tips related to how to use Outlook Tasks for better time management and to get things done.

P.S.: I will be uploading a document with some screenshots illustrating the tips above to make it easier for you to understand and do it yourself.


Effective Marketer Principle 8: Say “We” rather than “I”

February 6, 2009

“Think and say we” is Drucker’s advice. There are two good lessons here, one being that you should earn the trust of your team and you can only do that if they see that you are not going to go at it alone without giving them any consideration. It is also a good reminder of the great art of delegation, which is getting work done through others.

The marketing manager that thinks in terms of “we” will get more accomplished because he will be:

  • Sharing with the team the vision and direction of the company and of the department
  • Sharing with the team the marketing plan for the year and the goals for each campaign
  • Asking the team for feedback, ideas, and criticism
  • Giving feedback to the team on what they are doing right and what needs to be improved – Sharing with the company the successes the team as a whole has achieved
  • Trusting the team to make the right choices at difficult moments and allowing them to make mistakes along the way
  • Giving each team member additional responsibilities so they can learn and grow as professionals
  • Taking on more responsibilities and important projects now that he can share with the team the burden of ensuring successThink We Rather than I

A final, bonus if you will, lesson from Peter Drucker’s insightful article is about the art of listening. He says “listen first, speak last”. Good listeners will be better at understanding what needs to get done and will be more effective. So if you are ready to becoming an effective marketer, master these 8 principles (see previous posts for the other seven principles) and you will be one step ahead of the competition.

The road to effectiveness is not an easy one, but is definitely a rewarding journey.


Effective Marketer Principle 7: Run Productive Meetings

January 25, 2009

Meetings are a necessity of today’s work environment. And are also good source of humoristic material (see Dilbert cartoons) for the fact that they are often badly run and take way too much time. If you have ever asked yourself the following questions during a meeting, then is fair to assume the meeting wasn’t productive at al

  • Why am in this meeting?
  •  Why are all these people in this meeting?
  • Why are we meeting?
  • Haven’t we already discussed this in another meeting?
  • Shouldn’t [name of person] also participate in this meeting?
  • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • Who did we decide will take care of the action items?
  • Will anyone notice if I slip out of the room before the meeting ends?

So it is no surprise that one of the principles for effective marketers has to do with productive meetings. Drucker, of course, was right on target when included this principle in his article for effective managers (“What Makes an Effective Executive”, Harvard Business Review, June 2004) since one of the most important aspects one should be able to master in order to become effective is time management, and meetings are, as a general rule, a time drag.meeting1

Following Drucker’s advice, you should first identify what type of meeting is needed, since different meetings require different kinds of preparation. There are meetings to prepare a statement or press release, meetings where team members report the status of their tasks, meetings to inform other executives, and so on. From a marketing perspective, the principle still holds true and you will certainly be able to recognize in your organization all those different meeting types and should be able to prepare beforehand and run them according to their individual characteristics. For example:

Meeting to discuss campaign goals and strategy: this meeting should require attendees to be prepared beforehand by knowing the target market the campaign will focus on, reading results from similar campaigns or from campaigns targeting the same market, and assessing competitors’ actions towards the said market. If this kind of preparation is expected and understood by all participants, the meeting itself will be more productive since everyone will be able to come prepared to discuss the strategy rather than basic principles and background data.

Another example might be a meeting to review artwork, design, or other conceptual diagram related to marketing collateral or advertising. The requirements for this meeting differ from the previous one in the sense that previous preparation may involve having everyone review the proposed artwork or design beforehand and come prepared to the meeting with their observations. The meeting itself can be run also more focused on the specific artwork/design at hand, discussing that element in detail and how it relates to the overall message.

Finally, let’s take the example of a marketing staff meeting where you will review the results of the last quarter campaigns with the team. The way you will run this meeting will undoubtedly differ from the two types of meetings described above.

The takeaway from this principle is that once you realize that each meeting has its own purpose and structure, you can start organizing, preparing, and running meetings more effectively. But regardless of the type of meeting you will have, my personal experience is that you need at least the following:

  1. An agenda:  prepared and distributed prior to the meeting.
  2. An assigned note-taker: someone everyone agrees will write notes during the meeting, avoiding the all too common “oh, I thought you were taking notes so I didn’t take any!” problem.
  3. Published action items: sometimes referred as meeting minutes, it really doesn’t matter what you call it as long as it contains clear action items from the meeting, indicating who will do what by when. The note-taker is the person usually responsible for putting together the action items and sending it to everyone (after all, that’s why he was taking the notes!)

 Sounds simple and it really should be. Don’t let other people take you down with their useless meetings, you have more important things to do. Instead, teach them how to run effective meetings!


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