(Cross-posted. Originally published in the December, 2011 issue of PPB Magazine).
To borrow from Carlin’s supercharged anecdote: Effectiveness is just organized ambition. Years ago, I read an industry article about a million-dollar sales rep who, when asked about the contributing factors to his success, rated organization as one of the top three reasons for his sales growth. It wasn’t obvious to me then, but it’s obvious to me now: Show me a salesperson who refuses to spend time organizing the workflow, and I’ll show you a salesperson who has capped his or her income. These salespeople have handcuffed their potential, yet they firmly believe the flurry of activity they generate in their daily haste will surely outweigh the time they “waste” on getting organized. Disorganized professionals leave, at the least, a trail of broken promises in their wake and, at the most, missed opportunities. The irony? If you spend more time on organization, you’ll have more of a life to organize.
So, how does one go about taking control of their workflow and, therefore, their life? Fair warning: It’s not easy but it is possible to develop a workflow that allows you to command and conquer your day. It is like losing weight; it is a radical lifestyle change. Following are three power principles to serve as your baseline.
The Power Principles
1. Respect reconstruction. In many offices there are always a hyper-organized few and a disorganized many. Our production manager, Becky, is a brilliant organizer. Major clients have their own color of file folder so their projects can be easily identified. Working orders sit in a rolling filing cabinet for easy access. There are definite wrong ways to label files, and there are only right ways to manage documentation. Becky even had doors installed in her office so she could block noise. This seemingly restrictive grip of Becky’s allows her to process a tremendous amount of work. Her dedicated attention to organization makes her practically indispensable to the company. In practical terms, this means she can out-produce and outperform the average production manager. (Read: more organization equals more business.)
Becky gives organization the respect it deserves. She regularly blocks out distractions and constantly guards her time. Her vigilance in managing her day is unparalleled. One would mistake her dedication as obsessive, but Becky knows that to give a little is to lose a lot. Becky respects a well-ordered world.
Moreover, for Becky, organization is not restrictive. Organization is liberating, it means she can do more. This applies to sales reps and solo entrepreneurs as well.
Step one is the most important; gloss over this one and you’re doomed to repeat your failures: Give organization and self-management the respect it deserves. This means allocating time to organization and prioritization. Read books on organization, talk to others about how they manage their workflow, Google “life hacks” (productivity tricks) that will help you be more organized, but by all means necessary, make it important.
2. Embrace firewalls. We live in an unprecedented age. You can block TV ads, divert e-mails, deflect unnecessary phone calls, control social status updates and more. Yet most people do not erect firewalls to keep distractions to a minimum. You need your own set of firewalls to keep harmful distractions at bay and to contain your energy so you can channel it toward a purpose. Building firewalls can be a combination of both low-tech rules and high-tech tools.
3. Determine importance. Distinguish between urgent and important tasks. An urgent task might be a time-sensitive request from a family member or that order (no matter how big or small) that must be processed to meet the deadline. Important tasks might be attending a networking event, reaching out to five new prospects per week or researching new ideas for an important client. Those who don’t determine what’s important live under the tyranny of the urgent.
With these three principles as your underlying foundation, you can now build walls and windows on top of your structure. The following are 14 powerful tips for time management and organization:
1. Stop living in your in-box. If your in-box is your only project management tool then clearly other people dictate your priorities. Of course, clients will dictate your schedule (rightfully so) but so will myriad small tasks and suggestions forwarded to you by others. Close your e-mail. (Yes, you can!) Use tools such as Awayfind. This tool allows you to receive a text from the most important people in your life when they send you an e-mail. This means you can live with your e-mail closed most of the time and simply set up your major clients, your boss or other VIPs in Awayfind to notify you via your mobile device, a voice call or instant message.
2. Take on bite-sized tasks, not super-sized projects. Break major projects into smaller tasks. Often, we leave e-mail sitting in our in-box because it serves as our reminder for an important project or task. Problem is, this often becomes an emotional detriment. As more e-mails pile up, so does our frustration. The enormity immobilizes us. Get major projects out of your in-box and into a manageable task list, then eat the elephant, one bite at a time.
3. Practice in-box zero. In-box zero has commanded a cult-like following. When I tell others that I empty my in-box every day, they look at me as though I’m crazy. It is possible to empty your in-box every day, it just takes iron vigilance and a task management tool such as Omnifocus or Things to capture and process e-mails into a to-do list.
4. Abide by the two-minute rule. If it takes less than two minutes, do it right away. Don’t add it to your to-do list, just get it done so you can move on to what’s important.
5. Practice Pomodoro. The Pomodoro Technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo and is simple:
• Choose a task to be accomplished • Set a timer to 25 minutes • Work on the task until the timer rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper • Take a short break (five minutes is okay) • After every four tasks, take a longer break
6. Become a professional blocker. Constantly checking social media, e-mail and online news is the new work avoidance. Use blocker programs such as Freedom to block your internet usage so you can focus on mission-critical objectives.
7. Divert distractions. Use rules in Outlook to send unimportant e-mails to a separate folder so they don’t hit your in-box. Turn off social media notifications and use tools such as Read It Later or Instapaper to save that article or funny video for later.
8. Make the leap to modern. Use a modern-day task management tool such as Omnifocus on your iPhone, iPad and computer to sync everything to the cloud. I have folders set up for each client and even contexts set up for co-workers.
9. Collect and process: Evernote, a digital file cabinet, is probably one of the most important apps for our industry. Use it to collect and process ideas for your client by snapping a picture, taking a video or sending a web link to a specific client folder. If you get in the habit of collecting and processing ideas regularly, you’ll no longer have bags of cool stuff sitting in the corner of your office three months after a tradeshow.
10. Connect now, not later. Use apps for Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn to send invitations to connect to people while you are at an event or tradeshow. This simple step will ensure you don’t bank a pile of business cards to process later.
11. Use visual signals for your co-workers. Close your door when you need time and space to work on a project. If you are in an open-office environment, use headphones as a signal to others that you are trying to work uninterrupted. We recently thought of placing plastic fire hats on our desks to tell others not to interrupt. Visual cues clearly communicate you are trying to command, control and conquer time.
12. Reduce clutter. Financial guru Dave Ramsey says “normal” is broke and in debt. In business, normal is clutter and commotion. There is a weird stigma associated with a clean work environment—people think a clean desk is the sign of a light workload. Be weird: free your clutter and free your mind.
13. Respect productive hours. Business hours are to be coveted. Don’t frivolously grant anyone random access to you or your calendar. Guard your commitments. Determine what’s important to you and recognize the most productive hours of the day. For me, it’s mornings, and my weekly business hours are reserved for my most important appointments. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I also don’t commit to many requests unless they fit within my personal priorities (ask any new vendor who has tried to call on us; I’m generally a bulldog when it comes to my calendar).
14. Employ a weekly review. David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology has exploded in popularity (much of my practice stems from Allen, and I highly recommend his book) primarily because it is the best modern guide to managing all the macro and micro commitments in our lives. One of Allen’s many tips is a weekly review: “Most people feel best about their work the week before their vacation, but it’s not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you leave on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others. I just suggest you do this weekly instead of yearly.”