A few years ago, I found myself bogged-down and overwhelmed. My to-do list was out of control. I came home on Tuesdays (typically my most-stressful days – often 13 hours in the office) exhausted, sometimes feeling nearly physically ill, and often feeling like I had accomplished almost nothing other than reacting to the next person/thing demanding my attention. I came home dreading the rest of the week, as my 13-hour day had only lengthened my to-do list.
I needed a more productive attack. I needed a better way to manage my energy, as I could feel myself going slower and slower as the day and week progressed.
As a result, I did what I usually do. I started reading. I should first credit Michael Hyatt, as he pointed me to so many helpful productivity tools that I’m not even sure anymore which ones I found at his recommendation.
I found this brilliant little article from the Harvard Business Review: “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time” [pdf]. Then I came across the pomodoro technique . Then I found the Nozbe time/project management application and read Getting Things Done [affiliate links]. These combined to help me iron out a much more productive workflow, establish a more sustainable pace, and stop hating Tuesdays (at least most of them) and dreading a peek at my to-do list.
My new workflow
Here’s the new workflow I put into place:
Whenever it’s possible, I view my day in 3-hour chunks. I actually view those 3-hour chunks in 30-minute blocks.
When I’m doing office work, I set a timer for 25 minutes. I identify the single task I plan to work on (or occasionally the group of small tasks) before I set the timer. Then I go as hard as I can until my time runs out. When the timer goes off, I wrap up (no more than 20 seconds or so), stand up, and take a quick break. That’s a 4-5 minute break. Use the restroom, refresh my coffee, check voice mail, respond to a text message, take a quick walk through the office…
Then I do it again. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I do 5 little blocks in total. After those, I take a bigger break – about 20-30 minutes. In the morning, this is usually a walk. In the afternoon, I had been trying to take a 25-minute nap. I’m pretty well intellectually convinced that I should. But I’ve never gotten it to work for me. I feel like I just lay there for a while, and then it ends. So I’ve ended up using that time for other things. Checking Facebook, responding to personal e-mails, etc. I don’t think that’s a good use of the time – surely not reinvigorating, the way the time is supposed to be spent – but I’m being honest here.
So that’s my basic workflow. On most weekdays, it amounts to three 3-hour chunks (usually four on Tuesdays). Or fifteen 25-minute blocks of work per day, with two half hour breaks and several mini-breaks.
To-do lists and inboxes
I have two primary inboxes and one primary to-do list. My inboxes are my e-mail inbox and the top of the 4-compartment tray I have sitting on my desk. On my most-disciplined days, I use two blocks to go through them – usually one block around early-mid-day and one near the end of the day. (On my less disciplined days, my e-mail sits open all day and is too much of a distraction.)
When I run through e-mail, I handle anything that requires no more than 5 minutes or so. If something requires more than that, I throw the action needed onto my to-do list, and if I need the e-mail for reference, I move it to my “ACTION – WORK” folder. If it’s a personal e-mail, I move it to “ACTION – PERSONAL” and will try to take care of it later at home. Everything else goes into the “Processed” or “Trash” folders. Or if I send something to someone else to do, I move a copy to my “Waiting For” folder. I learned most of my e-mail system from Michael Hyatt.
I do the same with the physical inbox. Any paper that comes my way throughout the day goes into my top tray until it’s time to process it. I’ll also throw my own notes in there – phone calls to return, items to file, etc. The second of the four compartments is for action items that I’ll need to spend more time on later. The third compartment is for things I’m waiting on. The bottom compartment is for things I’d like to read later. No stray papers or stacks of paper on the desk. When those pile up, things get left at the bottom un-done. And a messy office just makes life feel chaotic. A clean desk has greatly reduced my stress.
Nozbe is my single to-do list. Anything I need to do but don’t want to be distracted doing at that exact moment goes into Nozbe. Why not just a normal to-do list? I got to the point that I needed something a bit more high tech. Something that could show me my to-do list based on contexts or dates I needed to do them or “next actions” vs. actions that are contingent on something else. It’s helpful because I can batch things like errands by listing them all in my “errands” context, and then running out and hitting them all at once. And I can create a “waiting for” context to review every couple days to see if I need to follow-up with anyone I’m waiting for. If you can get your whole team to use it, I could see Nozbe’s family and team plans being great. Also, it has a computer app, a web app, and a smart phone app that all sync. Very nice.
I usually transfer the to-do list items for the day onto a piece of paper. I still like to actually check things off on a piece of paper. And this allows me to keep my computer closed when I’m not using it.
When I’m planning my blocks out for the day, I usually try to estimate how much time my top to-do list items will take. How many blocks will it take me to upload sermons or to compile job descriptions? I’m also able to create a project that’s titled “small stuff” and run through as many of those things in one block as possible.
Handling things that don’t fit
This doesn’t work perfectly for everything. What to do with meetings? Or office drop-ins? Or urgent calls? Well, I do the best I can with them. With meetings, I usually still log them in blocks. I count a 90-minute meeting as three blocks. If an office drop-in or call comes that I can’t avoid, then I just deal with it. It’s no perfect system. But this at least makes me more aware of the time spent/lost if someone drops in my office to chat, and 20 minutes later, I have a timer going off.
And I should be quick to note here that every office drop-in and urgent call shouldn’t be treated as unwelcome. There are times I have to remind myself of this, but it’s typically much better for everyone when I get over myself and give due attention to the person at the door (and politely keep the conversation short if it really is unimportant).
Some of the greatest benefits:
– I’ve found a better rhythm. My days are more focused. Thanks to the mini-breaks and longer breaks, my energy is better at the end of the day. And my back and eyes don’t hurt from sitting and staring at a screen for hours without break.
– I know what I’ve done. Before, when I felt like I was in constant urgent response mode, I would finish a day and wonder where it had gone. For better or worse, I’m able to recognize those things that suck my time away. I know now that a problem with the office Internet isn’t just a nuisance. It’s four blocks of time. That little form I told someone I didn’t mind filling out? Now I know it represents two more blocks. Some of this helps me know when to stop and ask for help. Or when not to agree to taking something on in the first place.
– Because I see how much time (how many blocks) simple procedural work is taking, I think more about how to make it more efficient. What technology can I use to speed up a process? What can I delegate?
– I plan better. I intentionally carve out blocks to do planning and problem-solving work. Those things that are important but rarely urgent now find dedicated time. And I’ve also recognized that they get a much better, true block of my time if I “hide” somewhere (i.e. get out of the office) to do them.
Do I follow this to a tee? No. There are days when I follow it rigorously, days when I follow it loosely, and days when I abandon it altogether for one reason or another. But the days when I stick pretty closely to this model are generally my most productive and least stressful.
For more posts related to leadership, click here.