Case Study: Finally, An Updated Time Management System
My day is filled with constant streams of email, task, and project management. I have probably spent over 50 hours studying books, articles, systems, blogs (and everything else under the sun) trying to master the complex art of email and task management. I always felt that there must be an easier way to utilize Outlook, but each new system I tried left me initially excited but subsequently disappointed when I realized that the approaches were missing a key ingredient and didn’t align with the nature of my work. Initially, all the approaches and systems seemed very good in theory, but I realized they were only effective for people who received smaller amounts of email a day (e.g., 20-30 emails a day) and worked on very few projects at a time. I often send and receive over two hundred emails a day (many dealing with different projects), so these strategies fell apart after a few hours due to the amount of email I was processing.
When I attended one of Paul’s programs at a conference in April, I was immediately intrigued because he was as compulsive as I was about efficiency and systems. He had faced many of the challenges and frustrations I had faced regarding email and task management, but he had figured out some really good solutions that I had never come across yet, despite reading all of the best-selling books and blogs on this subject.
After taking Paul to lunch later that day and grilling him on his QuiteSpacing® methodology, particularly as it pertains to Outlook inbox management, I walked away with euphoric feeling. FINALLY, I had met somebody who not only understood both the conceptual challenges that people have with email management, but also the technical solutions. For two hours, we geeked out on ways to customize Outlook to allow for quick processing of email, organization of folders, and hosts of other shortcuts and customizations. Although the nature of the conference had to do largely with legal recruiting, the hands-down highlight was learning Paul’s system.
It has been over three months since I met Paul and am pleased to say that his methods have stood the test of time. Efficiently managing my email will always be an evolving art, but his strategies, tricks, and shortcuts have stayed with me and I use them each day, many times each hour. I am able to process and fly through my email in a way that was previously unimaginable.
If you can relate to anything I have mentioned, you would be very well served to consult with Paul. Like me, if you incorporate what you learn, you will be thanking him under your breath several times each day.
Case Study: Trapped in the Window Seat
Some months back, I was fortunate enough to sit next to Sean Murray, CEO of RealTime Performance, a leadership consultancy and developer of the Inspire web-based learning platform. Never one to ignore a captive audience and noticing that Sean immediately broke open his e-mail as soon as we cleared 10,000′, I proceeded to force feed him a dose of QuietSpacing® training during our cross-country flight from Newark, NJ, to Seattle, WA.
Sean was kind enough to post this article on his blog following that fire hosing
In His Own Words
Earlier this month, while catching a flight home to Seattle from New York City after a long week on the road meeting with clients, I made it to my seat, sat down and breathed a huge sigh of relief. For a moment, it was bliss. I knew in a few hours I would be home to see my family. But then the slow, creeping realization set in that my email in-box was overloaded with hundreds of emails I was unable to get to while on the road. Furthermore, I had five voicemails on my cell phone and probably more waiting for me on my office voicemail, which I had not yet checked that day. Although I was working hard all week, the work flowing through my in-box did not stop.
Just as the visions of un-read email set in, and the feeling of dread started to take over, I was greeted by the gentleman in the adjacent seat, who by good fortune was Paul Burton, an expert on time management and productivity. For the next five hours, Paul diligently and patiently coached me on his method for managing the flow of work that was beginning to overwhelm me. Together, we opened my Outlook and he began to change and configure my settings. The alert that went off every time an email arrived, gone. The preview pane that allowed me to read the first few lines of an email (and thereby save me time?), gone. The “to-do” list scribbled with paper-and-pen in my notebook, gone and replaced by the Task feature in Outlook.
Next he took me to a view in Outlook that showed my calendar for Monday and all my tasks that were due. My schedule for Monday was ugly, back to back phone calls and meetings. Paul said, “You have a train wreck coming on Monday and you didn’t even know it. But that’s okay, we’ll deal with it.”
As our plane made its way across the country, Paul and I went through my entire email in-box, quickly categorizing email in one of four categories; Trash, Archive, Reading and Work. The Trash and Archive items were promptly eliminated or filed away, while the Reading and Work where scheduled in the future using the built-in reminder system in Outlook (of which I was vaguely aware but completely intimidated by). The very last email in my in-box was from April, a request from a colleague about one of our products. Who knows what sales opportunity was lost or what credibility was eroded by my inability to reply to a simple request?
Paul’s method for time management is called QuietSpacing®, and it requires a fundamental shift in how we think about work. Whereas before, I was constantly writing and re-writing to-do lists, since implementing the QuiteSpacing® techniques, I have effectively managed the flow of work as it streams in through email, voice mail and my physical in-box. Before I was managing my work like the old Ford production facilities, now I’m managing work-flow like the Lean Toyota Production system.
Once my in-box was cleared, I felt a sense of freedom and I was able to focus on the one or two very important work items I needed to complete before Monday. When I arrived home to my family, instead of thinking about the work that was piled up, I was able to focus my attention on my wife and kids and be fully present for them.
Since the arrival of the Internet in the early 1990s, the amount of information bombarding busy executives has steadily increased. Think about the distractions that hit us every day; email, voicemail, mobile phones, blackberrys, blogs, twitter, meetings and conference calls just to name a few. As this revolution in work management has been developing, unfortunately the tools, technologies and skills required to manage this information have simply not kept up. Overtime, we have developed habits, most of them bad, for how we deal with information.
The personal transformation I have gone through over the past few weeks has allowed me to look at the field of leadership development from a slightly different perspective. For example, how can we expect leaders to have the presence of mind and the clarity of focus required to truly coach and develop their direct reports if they are completely overwhelmed by electronic information and requests? In the past, the answer to this question was to send executives to “time management” training along with their soft skills training, but unfortunately, so much of what passes for time management training today is right out of the 1980s. We don’t need help with our file-o-fax, we need help with our in-box. Outlook has incredibly useful features for information management, but most of us are unaware of them or simply do not know how they work. The irony is, we think we’re too busy to take the time to learn and actually change our habits. What I have come to realize is; how leaders deal with electronic requests is integral to the competencies of delegation, feedback, performance management, execution, networking; really every aspect of leadership.
If we want our leaders to truly breakthrough the constant noise and distraction of modern business, and transform into true people-leaders, we need to quiet their space and give them the freedom to be themselves. And to effectively do that, they need to acquire the skills to efficiently manage the flow of electronic work and requests that define the modern office.
Sean maintains his QuietSpacing® system and continues to enjoy its benefits. Moreover, his company – RealTime Performance – is growing quickly, adding Fortune 500 companies to their roster at a steady clip. Contact Sean at 877-343-2284 or SeanM@RealTimePerformance.com.
Case Study: QuietSpacing® In Action
The other day I a received a very rewarding email. Chris Tuttle – friend, former client, and intellectual property attorney at Alleman Hall McCoy Russell & Tuttle – lobbed a completely unsolicited QuietSpacing® case study over the fence. I asked him if I could post it here to demonstrate how people actually use QuietSpacing® in their hectic day-to-day lives. He agreed! So, after confirming that the images displayed don’t disclose any sensitive information, here is what Chris had to say.
My inbox was a vast untamed wilderness, with high-priority items buried in a giant pile of everything else: personal items, junk mail, things to read, unfiled client matters, etc. It was totally impossible to survey my inbox and figure out what truly needed my attention. In an attempt to impose some order, I would make other folders for items of medium or high importance. Sometimes I would label these folders with a date, to indicate that I had to read and process all these emails by the specified date. All this accomplished was creating another “bucket” of stuff, and one that would be easy to overlook during the daily exercise of treading water. There were other things I did to try and stay organized, but they all suffered from problems similar to those of my email “system.” The only thing my system was truly efficient at was generating gasoline-fire levels of anxiety.
Several years ago I met Paul and learned about his QuietSpacing® productivity method. Since that time, I have adopted and adapted numerous aspects of QuietSpacing® to help me manage my day-to-day workflow, be it electronic or physical.
I am surfing the big waves with panache. At the moment my inbox only has 4 emails in it:
I treat my email inbox at work as my master collection “bucket”. Virtually everything I have to do is initialized through an email. If I’m out riding my bike and a I see a cool show advertised on the side of a bus, I send myself an email (this actually happened on Monday — 2 hours later I pinned down a babysitter and was at the box office buying tickets). If I have to go pick up dinner on the way home, I send myself an email. If I talk to a co-worker about something, I ask them to send me an email. These are “artificial” bucket items in the sense that I specifically generate the emails or have someone else generate them so the items get into my system. But the far more usual case is that it’s totally automatic, for example an email from a client asking a question. This is automatic in the sense that there is no extra step of me sending an email or asking that one be sent. My first touch is the email itself.
So that’s gathering. What about assessing/producing? Basically I plow through my email two or three times a day, at a minimum. If there’s no way it can be addressed in one day or less, I’ll tuck it away somewhere and turn it into a task or calendar item or some other way of reminding myself later that I have total confidence in. A lot of the time, if the email is internal from a co-worker, I will just reply to them and ask them to remind me again in a week. Then I delete the original message and voila! – I’m no longer thinking about it or being pestered by it. My co-workers are now conditioned to take total ownership of the reminder and deadline when I do this. It’s great to have someone thinking about this stuff other than me. Trust of course is a huge sticking point but I have great people working for and with me.
Some days, it’s just all email, all day, meaning that I’m constantly receiving, reading and sending email. I do this on days when I just decide that it’s OK to not focus on any particular thing and just instead deal with whatever happens to be sitting there. On other days, I just look at my master bucket a few times and I make sure that it’s out of sight and out of mind for the rest of the day. This allows me to more deeply focus on work that would be totally compromised and inefficient if I allowed the interruptions to interrupt me. My recent experience with this QuietSpacing®-inspired approach is that I’m able to do a project in 5 hours that would previously have taken 10 or 15. This really happened recently. I wrote a patent application in 5 hours. That’s unheard of for me. That case is pretty dramatic, but even so my general productivity is through the roof compared to where it was.
The other thing I look at several times a day is my task list. There is a close relationship between my email and my task list. For example, a lot of my tasks originate from me dragging an email onto the task icon in Microsoft Outlook. This causes automatic generation of a task item with all of the email content in the note/memo field of the task item. For emails that pertain to an already-existing task, I might make note of the email and date in the memo field of the task item. For example, I have an upcoming trip to China and there are various things I have to do to get ready, including gathering information from various sources. Someone sent me an email the other day with information about my visa application. So I made a note in the memo field of my China Trip task item: “9-1-10 — email from Larry re: visa”. So the task items are often akin to what Dave Allen will refer to as “projects,” i.e., they often represent a group of action items or communications. For this stuff, I partly use the note/memo field of the task item as a “chron file” that allows me to quickly see all the major events and communications that have happened in connection with the task/project.
The coolest thing about the task list is that I use the Outlook categories field to tag the task items. They are tags in the sense that a particular task item might be tagged as belonging to two or more categories (e.g., “Client” and “Business Development” categories). Some of the categories loosely relate to the “contexts” that Dave Allen talks about. He is big on the idea of reminding yourself to do something at the moment when you are most able to do it. For example, if you’re ready to go run errands, that is the perfect time to be reminded that you need to pick up some light bulbs from the hardware store. In fact, in my system I have a task category entitled “Errands.” I look at those tasks whenever I get ready to leave my office, so I’ll remember to stop by the bike shop, pharmacy, cleaners, etc. I also use a couple categories to keep important things front-and-center in my consciousness. For example, I use the category “1 – Now” for things I have to deal with today. The “1” prefix ensures that it will be near the top of my task list, which is sorted by category in my default task view. The task list has the potential to get a little out-of-hand lengthwise, but I am able to take a quick lap through it in less than 5 minutes even when it gets pretty long. My regular perusals of the task list give me a 10,000 foot view of my total workload. Here is what my task list looks like right now:
Between my email “bucket,” task list and calendar, I’m now on top of a bomb-proof system for making sure I can focus deeply and maintain a very high level of productivity. And the peace of mind is golden. Never again will I wake up at 3:00 in the morning thinking about something I have to do!
Editor’s Note (by PHB)
One of the greatest features of QuietSpacing® is its malleability. The method was designed to be elegant and simple, meaning that people can incorporate its principles into the way they like to work, instead of the other way around.
If anyone would like more information on how QuietSpacing® works in the real world, or if you need a great intellectual property lawyer, feel free to contact Chris at Chris@ahmrt.com or (503) 459-4141!